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Young bunch let their talent show

Brian Hayward goes to the Edinburgh Fringe looking for signs of the performance gene in would-be stars of the stage.

For anyone interested in arts education, the sad fact about performing in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is that it is becoming a privilege only the affluent and well-connected can afford.

Where a few years ago there were small-time youth theatres and local authority enterprises, there are now fee-paying schools and American dollars. Being part of the Fringe for even a few days is an unmatchable crash course in the performing arts and it is a miserable truth that our state schools seem to have been priced out of it.

Those missing out include not only the happy amateurs, the once-in-a-lifetime triers, but also the genuinely gifted. Teachers know that talent is not something a person gets with their Highers; they toddle into primary school with it written across their foreheads. One of the pleasures of young people's theatre is seeing the performance gene getting a chance to show.

It happened for the petite Tani Lynn Fujimoto of the St Louis Centre for the Arts. Her college is here with the American High School Theatre Festival, made up from the cream of US school and college shows. St Louis was giving the Scottish premi re of Aida, not the one with Verdi and the elephants but the Elton John and Tim Rice version. In case we are still thinking elephants, the pair pointedly subtitle their version as "the timeless love story".

The musical is the American art form, so this weepy melodrama of star-crossed lovers is meat and drink to these actors in every way.

Aida and Radames were a fetching pair of lovers who brought a tear to many a young eye but Ms Fujimoto gently made the production her own. She played Anmeris, the jilted Egyptian princess, and the way the cast called her "princess" reminded me of John Wayne being respectful.

The Church Hill Theatre is not the kindest of spaces for actors but she beamed the emotion across the audience, handled the comedy like Fenella Fielding and, best of all, could belt out a ballad like Tina Turner.

How can the Americans afford to come every year? Their programme democratically lists nearly 350 sponsors, a few of them corporations but most simply parents and relatives of the students.

Westminster School's programme, on the other hand, names only eight underwriters but easily makes up the ground with a little name-dropping, observing that John Gielgud, Peter Brook, Peter Ustinov, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham-Carter "wrote, directed and acted in the school's theatre company".

This year the London school's departing sixth formers came to Edinburgh with what was very much an in-house production: Cry in the Dark was directed by their drama teacher, Chris Barton, in his adaptation of his wife Dee Shulman's children's book of that title at the Smirnoff Underbelly.

Husband and wife teams, it seems, are the fashion this year. The story nicely mixes the tensions of a broken family, ghosts and social compassion, and all the pieces swim together around a commanding performance by Ed Franklin as the 12-year-old with a foot in two centuries. He - and this is by no means usual with young people gifted with the performance gene - is looking to the performing arts for a career.

Gresham's School, of Holt, Norfolk, has a distinctive record on the Fringe and for its 11th appearance brought another "family" show. Drama teacher Victoria Harvey directed A History of Ham, a play she co-wrote with her husband, Mark Seldon, an English teacher at the school.

Their play is a bit of a critic's delight, being a romp through three millennia of theatrical history, starting with Sophocles's Oedipus Rex as performed by Bart and Marge of The Simpsons and going on from there.

While the audience indulged in the cheerful business of ticking off the allusions, the young cast had the more challenging task of hitting off the likes of Irish tramps, Samuel Pepys and Oscar Wilde to name but a few, though here again the performing gene shone brightly and it was hardly surprising to learn afterwards of a touch of theatrical lineage.

Ms Harvey prepared her cast with sessions on the history of theatre, which maybe some of the audience would have appreciated.

Incidentally, Gresham's programme listed no sponsors at all, but did mention that former pupils include W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten and Peter Brook (again).

I was looking forward to seeing An Ofsted Inspector Calls but could not get in, so instead I went back to the Smirnoff Underbelly.

This building gives the impression of having been a multi-storey catacomb, now liberally wallpapered with show bills and smelling faintly of stale beer. The dank and cavernous atmosphere had helped the spooky Westminster School production and was also absolutely right for the En Masse Theatre company who are back on the Fringe with The Shelter, for which the setting is an air raid shelter in 1942.

Any play taking as its subject the bombing of civilians in London should have been on to a winner and the start was promising enough, with us being lined up and taken into the dimly-lit cavern by a very haughty lady with an ARP armband. The damp air and uncomfortable seating seemed pretty authentic too and the feeling of being trapped and threatened by something outside was well exploited by the cast.

But all this naturalism was at odds with the strangely surreal story of the abduction of the air raid patrol warden's two sons by a colonel and his lady and their accomplices, a clarinetist and a masked accordionist. With precise direction, the weird tale might have been brought off, but a guiding hand was lacking.

In its absence, the company, who are a talented bunch of actors, simply did their own thing and gave us an hour of terrific moments, few of which joined up in any kind of dramatic shape, narrative rhythm or character interplay. I would name names but there was no programme.

For disciplined professionalism I turned to some London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art graduates calling themselves Pompalorum Jig, who brought Brecht's The Wedding to the Fringe. This is the kind of comedy that gives German humour a bad name; a savage one-act farce that makes cruel and merciless fun, if you can call it such, of a wedding banquet and its bourgeois and unattractive celebrants, the pregnant bride, the incompetent woodworking bridegroom, the shrewish sister, the boorish father and the rest.

This is Brecht enjoying his dyspepsia to the full and, though the humour is too bleak and black to be amusing, the cast were all splendidly alienating.

'Cry in the Dark', 'The Shelter' and 'Brecht's The Wedding', all on until August 28, tel 0131 226

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