The Fringe: Never mind the box office...

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From the Fringe's first virtual show (Soul Photography by Mikhail Tank will be venueless and streamed live on the internet) to the Ultimate Girls Night Out with those oiled-up, bow-tied icons we know as The Chippendales, the Edinburgh Fringe 2009 seems determined to move on from a year in which everything from a collapsed box office system to global recession threatened to thwart it.

Fringe Sunday may have been scrapped and the Comedy Awards formerly known as the Perrier been given funding by its own promoter, Nica Burns, after failing to secure a sponsor, but the show, as ever, must go on.

This year the number of free shows is up from 300 to 465, a heartening statistic during a recession. And promoters and performers don't appear to have been put off coming to Edinburgh in August with 34,265 performances of 2,098 shows in 265 venues across the city. Which ones, though, are worth checking out? With tickets on sale from tomorrow, we've done the hard work for you.

KIDS

The big draw is The Princess' Blankets (Scottish Storytelling Centre), a new poetry show for children over the age of eight by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy featuring musician John Sampson and her daughter Ella Duffy. Based on Duffy's picture book of the same name, expect queens, Mozart, Peggy Guggenheim and a princess who is forever cold. Also at the Storytelling Centre, the brilliant Paper Cinema tells Conan Doyle's yarn, Lost World, with live animation and music.

The Gigalees Crazy Circus Show (Gilded Balloon Teviot) was the smash hit at this year's Melbourne Comedy Festival. Combining comedy, acrobatics, juggling, slapstick and music, it's unabashed silliness for all ages. A Midsummer Night's Dream, by Beijing Film Academy (McEwan Hall), isn't specifically directed at children but with its combination of Chinese performers, music, martial arts, computer gaming and video technology from the chief video designer at the Beijing Olympics, older kids are bound to be impressed. For those awww! moments, take a baby, any baby, (borrow one if need be) to the Corn Exchange to witness DJs spinning tunes for little ones at Baby Loves Disco.

THEATRE

Theatre looks strong this year, taking up an impressive 28 per cent of the Fringe programme. An acclaimed production of Muriel Spark's masterpiece, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (Assembly @ Assembly Hall) features Olivier Award nominee Anna Francolini in the title role in a performance that has been described as "breathtaking". For those who deem Spark the crme de la crme, a brand new adaptation of The Girls Of Slender Means is tackled by Scottish women's theatre company Stellar Quines (Assembly @ George Street).

For those seeking guaranteed laughs at a big Fringe ensemble show, look no further than Lionel Blair and co sporting powdered wigs in The School For Scandal, Sheridan's classic 18th-century drawing room farce (Pleasance Courtyard). Also featuring Stephen K Amos, Miss Behave, Phil Nichol and many more, it's directed by Cal 'The Mighty Boosh' McCrystal and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Equally so, Denise Van Outen's Fringe debut (Udderbelly Cow Barn) should get bums on seats to hear the blonde on blonde, singing Dusty and Duffy in a show written by Jackie Clune.

There is plenty of serious, thought-provoking theatre, however. Palace Of The End (Traverse 1), from Manchester's Royal Exchange, is a five-star hard-hitter directed by Judith Thomson about the war in Iraq, which dramatises David Kelly's dying thoughts among others' stories. After the huge success of Mark Ravenhill's breakfast plays, this year sees The World Is Too Much (Traverse 2), a series of short morning plays responding to world events featuring writers such as Rona Munro and David Greig – and coffee and a roll.

Ontroerend Goed, the Belgian teenagers whose show last year, Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You..., was one of the best on the Fringe, return with a new work Internal (Traverse @Mercure Point Hotel). Featuring five performers and five audience members, it's described as a cross between speed dating and group therapy. Beachy Head (Pleasance Dome), from Fringe First-winning company Analogue uses text, CGI animation and physical theatre to explore one man's decision to end his life. Even comedy venues such as The Stand are getting in on the action with a newly revised version of Gregory 'Black Watch' Burke's Gagarin Way, an enticing first foray into theatre.

MUSIC

Maria Tecce (Assembly @ George St), is a globally lusted-after chanteuse who has been described as Audrey Hepburn channeling Eartha Kitt. If you're hankering after more divadom, Almost Like A Virgin (Pleasance Dome) boasts the talents of the UK's leading Madonna impersonator who has turned the mimickry of Madge into an artform. Here, she sings classics from The Immaculate Collection and beyond and talks about life as a fake Material Girl.

The big names at the Edge festival this year are David Byrne (Playhouse), The Streets and Calvin Harris (both HMV Picture House). The return of Edwyn Collins for three nights to celebrate his 50th birthday in his hometown is sure to make for some magical evenings on the Fringe.

DANCE

Although Aurora Nova at St Stephen's, the leading venue for dance and physical theatre in recent years, is still sorely missed, it's great to see The Arches from Glasgow taking up residence at the church with two dance shows. Trilogy by Nic Green features 50 female dancers exploring feminism, while Spaceman by Dudendance was a huge success at Arches Live last year.

If you want beautifully choreographed and exquisitely performed contemporary dance, top recommendation goes to Scottish Dance Theatre, who return this year with two pieces (Zoo Southside). Luxuria is Liv Lorent's award-winning work, romantic and lavishly styled. A Visitation is a new work from Norwegian choreographer Ina Christel Johannessen.

Elsewhere, double Fringe First winner David Bolger, renowned for his work with the brilliant CoisCim Dance Theatre company, joins forces with Ireland's leading aerial dance company Fidget Feet to create RAW. Combining a club sensibility with aerial acrobatics and male dancers gyrating round poles, it also boasts Dance Base's first venture into the Leith venue, the Out of the Blue Drill Hall.

COMEDY

This year isn't about celebrity names coming to the Fringe but many of the guaranteed box-office greats are returning. Straight from a sell-out run in the West End, Frank Skinner's Credit Crunch Cabaret (Assembly @ George St) features top draw comedians, musical acts and variety performers. Julian Clary celebrates his 50th year with Lord Of The Mince (Udderbelly Pasture) in what might be the most camp, claws-out hour on the Fringe.

Alistair McGowan is back for the first time in a decade with a stand-up hour of impressions (Assembly @ Assembly Hall), and performing the songs and poems of Noel Coward with Charlotte Page (Assembly @ George Street). Ricky Gervais returns with his new show Science (Playhouse), and the Dutch comic Hans Teeuwen, who won five-star reviews last year for his "sado-Dadaist cabaret", is back for six nights at the Udderbelly.

Newer but by no means lesser faces include American actress Janeane Garofalo (Gilded Balloon Teviot), who won an Emmy nomination for her role in The Larry Sanders Show, used to date Ben Stiller, and brings her brand of observational geek chic comedy to the Fringe. Winner of the newcomer if.com award Sarah Millican returns with a show about the differences between men and women, as does the 2008 if.com winner David O'Doherty with his cheap plastic keyboard in tow.

We're also tickled pink at the thought of sitting in on one of Dixie Longate's Tupperware Parties (Assembly @George Street). Drag queen Dixie purports to be the No 1 Tupperware seller in the world and has been a huge hit off Broadway. We have heard rumours of airtight, plastic giveaways.

Top five free Fringe

A Personal War

Based on the testimonies of seven people who experienced the Mumbai terror attacks of last year, this is the first time the Indian director, Divya Patel, and cast have come to the Fringe.

Aug 7-15, 1pm, The Hive, free non-ticketed

Just A Minute

Chaired by the most dapper man on the Fringe, Nicholas Parsons, don't miss this annual golden opportunity to sit in the live audience of BBC Radio 4's most beloved show, still going strong and attracting the best comedians after 35 years.

Aug 18, 2.15pm and 4.15pm, Pleasance Courtyard, free ticketed

Underbelly Funk

The return of Underbelly's very first comedy show, from way back in the year 2000, with late-night comedy improv from the best of the bunch.

Aug 14, 15, 12.30.am, Underbelly, free (pay what you think on the night)

Miss High Leg Kick's Fashion Bus

A free outdoor couture show featuring a host of fashion victims with tongues firmly in cheeks – from glamour grannies to neon teens – all spilling out of an old London Routemaster bus and introduced by cult cabaret queen Miss High Leg Kick.

Aug 24-29, 6.30pm (7pm), The Grassmarket, free

Shaggers

For that time of night when you're tipsy and silly and just want to hear jokes about sex, this comes straight from sell-out shows in Melbourne, Brighton and Leicester and was a surprise hit at Fringe 08. Expect the likes of Jim Jeffries and Stephen K Amos and, we promise, some women too, riffing about last night.

Aug 6-30, 11.40pm, The Counting House, free.

Booking opens tomorrow (0131-226 0000) www.edfringe.com

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