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Jo Verrent caught eight disability-related shows at Edinburgh in two days … and lived to tell the tale

An actor turns his/her head to the top left corner of frame. She (maybe he) is wearing a shiny, heavily made-up smiling mask beneath a black feathered boa. She is holding a bouquet of azaleas and has the posture of someone who has just received an award

Gary Robson in Head Over Heels

To see every disability-related show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year you'd need the whole three weeks of the festival. Wherever you look, disability spills out of the event - within the Degenerate Disability Arts Festival at Theatre Workshop's venue, within the programming of many other spaces, within the crowds of wheelchair-using punters pushing you off the pavement on the Royal Mile and even within the content of many pieces (yes, that old chestnut, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, is still being performed by some companies). I only had two days, and I had to fit in a meeting too, so I was seriously pushed for time. Eight shows later and I can report that the variety of disability-related work I saw offered up at the festival is just that - varied.

There were the solid favourites, such as 12% Evil, by Laurence Clark - reliable format, great presentation, and I loved the inclusion of film clips of Laurence checking out the gullibility of the great British public when they see a crip with a collecting tin. I really want to know what's next for Laurence. I would love to see him stretch himself away from the familiar into new artistic ground. Fittings were reliable too, with a reworking of Heelz on Wheelz. I must confess I could watch Garry Robson paint his toenails and find it riveting. He is, for me, such a consummate showman, although in this piece he had his limelight stolen by a fantastic performance from Simon Startin as Bona. His portrayal of this bitter queen moved me most in a piece that has possibly become overwritten, with the layering of meaning sometimes seeking to obscure the narrative rather than aid it (script by Noel Greig). Blind Gurl and the Crips disappoints - not in the quality of the musical performances, which are great (Dead Flowers being a particular favourite) - but simply because it doesn't have a format to drive it. Just singing a few of your favourite songs whilst an audience watches doesn't do it for me. It was great to see Sally Clay on form - her voice and instrumental control is fantastic and I look forward to a joint venture next year between Sally and Gary that was mentioned - a musical based on the life and work of Ian Dury being developed for Glasgow.

A rehearsed reading of Fluff (by CripToNite performed by Liz Carr, Taharah Azam and the writer of the piece, Sophie Partridge) showed that Disability Arts in its rawest form is alive and well. Fluff played to its predominantly crip audience with frequent references to PAs, residential homes, longed-for sex and the still frequent limiting of ambitions placed upon disabled people by a society that too often fails to see the potential in front of it. To go further, the piece still needs work. Its structure identifies its three characters clearly but fails to give the drama needed to sustain an hour long show, although Liz Carr in particular gives a good performance.

I thought it best to go and see something new - a company I had never heard of - so headed off to see Head over Wheels by Morpheus Theatre Company. Oh dear. It wasn't that the company's performances were bad - all bar one were competent actors, singers and musicians, and they certainly gave it their all - but the clearly improvised script and the structure of the piece was dated and embarrassingly naïve. It's an integrated cast in an issue-based piece covering disability, homosexuality, science geeks, Christianity, sadomasochism and more - with each character having their story to tell.

I also thought I'd catch up with Chickenshed. Like many people within Disability Arts I have been aware of a tension between their work and reputation and the work of disabled artists and companies. To be fair, they do not bill themselves as disability-related - just as an inclusive company. I'm just not sure their idea of inclusion is the same as mine. When I was training in drama, I can remember being so pleased to be accepted on a drama course that I thought sitting out of the exercises I couldn't do and joining in when I could was the perfect way to be involved. I had flashbacks watching this show, as the two cast members with visible impairments seemed to become absent whenever the choreography became challenging, the set needed moving, or whatever. For me, inclusion is about more that just having people involved; it's about an equality within that involvement. It's not about disabled people always having the lead roles, but it is about ensuring that the artistic practice truly represents all. That was my other issue with the show. Technical flourishes abounded - lots of projections on to the set - talking heads, free-flying birds… and yet none of it was used to aid the access for the audience. As a hearing- impaired person I would have really appreciated some subtitling/ surtitling as so much of the text was recorded voices - much harder to get than live speech as there was no lip pattern to follow. Why not learn from the artistic practice of companies such as Graeae and include that, or on-stage audio description as in Fluff, within the aesthetic of the work?

My last disability-related piece was Wasted (Y)ears, by Tim Barlow. Tim is a Deaf actor, a former army man who (unknowingly) inspired my own artistic ventures some 20 years ago. A mainstream actor (last seen in the film comedy Hot Fuzz), this show charts his acquired deafness and his decision to take to the boards, despite the consequences for his family. It was like watching the ramblings of a favourite uncle - moments of comic brilliance mingled with a monologue that simply served to move the story on. His metamorphosis into his seven-year-old daughter at her point of departure from the UK for Australia and caught between love and hate for her Dad brought tears to my eyes, and his depiction of a number of army personnel will have me smiling for days.

Oddly, it was when I took a step into the mainstream I had my most profound 'disability moment'. I popped into DanceBase, Edinburgh's dance venue, to catch a triple bill of contemporary dance called Stratospheric. The second piece, Vermiculus, by Finnish dancer and choreographer Eeva Muilu awakened me from the off. Initially the audience is told by an upbeat, squeaky voice that Amanda is unable to perform for us this evening as she is feeling down, unable to cope, is demotivated, lethargic, has disturbed sleep patterns… and, instead, Amanda will perform for us. This Amanda is feeling upbeat, energetic, unaware of danger and not in control. To anyone with experience of bipolar disorders the above will feel unreassuringly familiar, and after stripping off her dress to reveal mismatched bra and big pants, Amanda slaps, screeches, screams, hollers, jumps, laughs and races her way around the stage taking us with her as her artistic vision gets bigger, bolder, brasher, better and generally “more, more, more”. And then the crash comes. Her body lies, sweat-drenched, on the bare dance floor. Her breath is ragged, her body tensing as she tries to move, futilely stretching, unable to gain control of her limbs. Intensely painful to watch, she slowly creates a series of basic poses, empty of emotion, her body still panting from the previous exertion.

The notes for the piece don't mention mental health. They talk about the piece questioning what is valid and what is not for performance and in society as a whole, challenging the notion of who decides what they value. As an audience member, I was forced to examine my own collusion. Within the arts, what do we want to see and what price are we willing to pay for it? It was like suddenly being made aware that I had bought a ticket to watch Britney Spears shave her head.

So disability at the fringe - inescapable. The quality debate - still raging. From a personal perspective it was great to see so many performers I know up there, strutting their stuff. From an artistic perspective, slightly disappointing not to have caught THE show that puts all others in the shade. But that's Edinburgh - more than 2000 shows in three weeks - the best ones are always the ones that got away.