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Discover the arts for having a good time

Someone once described ocean yacht racing as being akin to tearing up piles of pound;20 notes while standing under a cold shower. It is not a wildly dissimilar experience for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre groups who book a venue and then fail to attract an audience.

This year the Theatre of Relativity has found the perfect answer to the no audience dilemma by putting on no play. With tongue in cheek and claiming to take Peter Brook's book about the theatre The Empty Space to its logical conclusion, its Sweet FA is billed as having no set, no actors, no plot and no sound. Tickets cost pound;3 for the hour of nothing at the Crowne Plaza, with a 50 per cent refund if you stay to the end.

Nothing, however, will come of nothing, as King Lear said to Cordelia.

That's my cue to mention that Oakham School, Rutland, is bringing Lear's Daughters, a prequel to Shakespeare's play by Elaine Feinstein (showing the three girls growing up in their father's kingdom, a story of childhood and the effects of child abuse), and credit the schoolteachers who make something of the Fringe.

Leicestershire Youth Arts, started by two teachers who took early retirement to make a second career as theatre impresarios, recognise the educational benefit of simply being there and that performing is merely a bonus. This year they bring to Edinburgh a children's play, three other plays, including John Godber's Teechers, and two musicals, Oh, What a Lovely War! and Sweeney Todd.

A regular hunk of the Fringe is called the American High School Theatre Festival, showcasing the cream of US young talent. This year they are taking advantage of low air fares by bringing more than 20 productions to Edinburgh. Their forte in every sense is the musical. What the New York Times says of The Music Man - "as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration" - could be said of much of a programme that gives an account of popular music from Ragtime to Hair, My Fair Lady and the 1990s tale of Batboy.

Compared with their British counterparts, the shows generally have a feel-good gloss and a glitter. Two exceptions are Working - A Musical, based on interviews with American workers and described as "a show for anyone who's ever punched a clock or wanted to punch a boss", and, among the stage plays, Bang, Bang, You're Dead, which investigates the motives of the high school pupil who shoots dead five classmates in the school cafeteria.

Otherwise, the areas of concern for American youth are a world away from those of, for example, the Edinburgh Youth Social Inclusion Partnership, who make up their Citizen Y programme from their interactions with adults in the city, posing the truculent question "Why should we behave like citizens when we are not treated like them?", or even those of the Newbury Youth Theatre, who come back for a second year with a "total theatre" production about the use of drugs for controlling, rather than curing, mental illness, entitled The Control Experiment.

There is a steady market for children's shows on the Fringe. Whether parents are driven by guilt at subjecting their offspring to trailing around the exhibitions and concerts or motivated by a proper desire to educate them in the ways of theatre-going, there is no lack of earnest parents and slightly bewildered children. Together they are a snare for the performers, who almost always feel they have to contaminate the child's agenda with some content for the adults to enjoy, when really all the parents want is for the children to have a good time.

For that reason, anything that claims to appeal to a family audience is likely, but only likely, to be less precisely tuned than something that strives to appeal to the child in you. Compare, for example, Gordonstoun, which has shed its cold showers image with a vigorous theatre programme, describing Hamlet ... Tragedy in a Trunk as being for children, families and those coming reluctantly to Shakespeare for the first time, with Stage by Stage, a company said to "really care about its young audience", presenting The Jungle Book.

As ever, the proof of the pudding comes when the auditorium lights are dimmed, and by then, as the Glasgow comics liked to say, yer money's awa'.

www.edfringe.comSweet FA, August 9, 10, 16-18, 20-25Lear's Daughters, August 16-24Oh, What a Lovely War!, August 12-21, 23Sweeney Todd, August 12-13Teechers, August 12-23The Music Man, final performance August 9Ragtime, August 14, 16, 17, 19Hair, August, 15, 17, 18My Fair Lady, final performance August 9Batboy, August 15, 17, 19, 20Working - A Musical, August 14, 16, 18, 19Bang, Bang, You're Dead, final performance August 9Citizen Y, August 9, 15, 16The Control Experiment, August 11-16Hamlet I Tragedy in a Trunk, August 11-16The Jungle Book, August 9-23

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