Theatre review: Internal

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IN A CONFERENCE centre off Bread Street, something strange is happening to this year's Fringe audience. In a culture that no longer really does dating – or only does it in the context of organised speed-dating sessions – they're finding themselves sitting at a little restaurant table opposite a handsome actor, usually of the opposite sex, who offers a glass of wine, gazes into their eyes, and then begins to make contact, either by asking searching questions about life and love, or by asking if they can hold hands, touch your face, stroke your hair.

This is Ontroerend Goed's Internal, the first and most talked-about of a host of one-on-one theatre experiences in Edinburgh this year; and although the format sounds simple, the effect can be moving, devastating, almost life-changing. There's certainly no pressure on any audience member to do anything that doesn't feel comfortable; some couples in each group of five kiss at the end of the encounter, others dance or hug, one actress sometimes elegantly slips off her undies and offers them as a souvenir.

What's remarkable about this 25-minute experience, though – contained as it is within the art and ethics of one of Belgium's leading theatre groups – is the extent to which it seems to make people both think and feel. First, it reminds us of the chronic lack of emotional and physical intimacy – as opposed to crassly commercialised sexual imagery – that dogs our modern urban lives; we often don't have time to be tender, exploratory, physically alive, even if people were not too guarded to allow it. Then, it makes us think about truth and lies in such encounters. These actors are probably adopting fictional characters; but then how often are any of us completely truthful in presenting ourselves to others? And finally there is something about borderlines between this theatre experience – bought and paid for like any other – and the paid-for intimacy of prostitution, a trade that looms so large in our culture.

So is it true that real relationships are becoming too difficult for us? Are we such a bunch of sad cases that we need to buy a theatre ticket to get a date? Or have we just forgotten, in our earnest quest for autonomy and self-sufficiency, how to make that first move towards something that notoriously brings pain and need as well as joy and fulfilment? Ontroerend Goed's show never pretends to answer any of these questions; but it surely raises them, as powerfully as any theatre experience I can remember.

Until 30 August. Today, half-hourly from 2pm-4:30pm and 7pm-9:30pm.