Despatches from the front line

Reportage and Middle Eastern crisis lend a raw tone to this year's Fringe

<strong>Edinburgh Fringe

What makes men want to kill each other? Recruits to the Black Watch regiment in the First World War, boys from Fife and Perthshire, were told that the Somme region was lovely at this time of year, that the conflict would be over by Christmas, and that they would get three meals a day and have big guns to play with.

This scene in Gregory Burke's Black Watch, performed by the new National Theatre of Scotland in an old drill hall and the runaway hit of the first week of the Edinburgh Festival fringe programme, shows how being a soldier was less about principles, or patriotism, than joining a team and finding a social purpose.

Burke burst to prominence at the Festival five years ago with his savage farce Gagarin Way. He based much of his new text on interviews with squaddies lately returned from Iraq, where they relieved US forces at the messy theatre of Camp Dogwood.

Burke's play, brilliantly directed by John Tiffany and flawlessly performed by ten convincingly drilled young actors, is more than a quilt of testimony; it is a moving, poetic lament for a regiment, now amalgamated, which was incorporated in the British army by George II in 1739, and whose expeditions included Waterloo, the Boer war, Korea and Kosovo.

A similar rawness of first-hand experience informs Unprotected at the Traverse Theatre, a searing play about Liverpool prostitutes, edited from interviews and directed by Nina Raine. The plan to run a managed zone for sex workers in the build-up to Liverpool's year as European City of Culture in 2008, one of the play's main issues, has been ditched. (I was reminded of Moscow's attempt to sweep streetwalkers under the carpet for the 1980 Olympics; the only positive result was a stunning play for the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, Stars in the Morning Sky, which visited Glasgow and London eight years later.)

The murders of two prostitutes are recalled by their friends and colleagues. Some of the first act is a bit unclear and needs tightening, but the second act, with two mothers joined in a Shakespearean litany of grief for their abused, strangled and mutilated daughters, is magnificent. So are the six actors from the Liverpool Everyman.

Lately, verbatim theatre techniques, as much as the Middle East crisis, have galvanised our theatre. The Royal Court's production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie has arrived at the Pleasance with an extraordinary new actress, Josephine Taylor, succeeding Megan Dodds in the role of the voluntary peace worker kill ed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in March 2003. Corrie's writings (edited by the actor Alan Rickman, who directs the play, and the Guardian journalist Katharine Viner) have an enchanting innocence and poignancy, and Taylor - red-haired, lissom, poised beyond her years - breaks your heart with their urgency and freshness.

Another journalist, Mary Kenny, has produced a charming conversation piece for Winston Churchill and Michael Collins at the Assembly Rooms. Allegiance suffers badly from the clunky use of a narrator to fill in the historical context of this speculative 1921 encounter between Churchill, colonial secretary in Lloyd George's coalition government, and the IRA leader who had been sent by Éamon de Valera to negotiate a peace treaty. The upshot of that fateful compromise was Collins's murder and the Irish civil war, catastrophes that loom in the background of Ken Loach's superb recent film The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

A brief thumbs-up for Les Dennis in Marlon Brando's Corset at the Pleasance. Dennis plays a television soap writer hassled by creditors and ungrateful actors in a play by Guy Jones that is that rare thing - a funny thriller. Dennis's new career of cashing in on his loser status is acquiring almost heroic proportions. And he leads a wonderful cast that includes the astonishingly slimmed-down, and very funny, Mike McShane, as well as the real-life soap heart-throb Jeremy Edwards and the smart stand-up Jim Field Smith.

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Pick of the week

See How They Run
Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Brilliant revival of Philip King's wartime farce about vice and vicars in Middle England.

Duke of York's, London WC2
Tom Stoppard makes links between the Velvet Underground and the velvet revolution.

Adelphi Theatre, London WC2
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber at their best in a tango tragedy of politics and populism.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights