Thursday, 26 April 2018

REVIEW: Burke and Hare at the Watermill Theatre

The names of Burke and Hare have become closely associated with the grave robbers of Edinburgh in the early 1800's to supply the anatomists need for bodies to dissect in the city but in fact, their tale is even more macabre as they have lured victims to their lodgings and murdered them. This new version by Tom Wentworth turns the grisly tale into a black comedy, a sort of cross between Horrible Histories and Sweeney Todd. He cleverly build the play around just three actors and has great fun creating business around the lack of cast members including calling for one member of the audience to join them to play a cadaver. Much of the humour derives from the theatricality of the presentation although occasionally the comedy is stretched too thin as when one actor has to play the entire extended family of another. 

The success of the production derives from the high energy and talented cast and the simple but effective way they switch between characters. All three at various points play one of the victims, Ferguson with a wisp and a red coat. Katy Daghorn is excellent as a varied group of participants including Mrs Hare , Anatomist Dr Munro , Helen (Burkes fiancé ), Mary (another lodging guest) and the initial actor to play student Ferguson. She distinguishes each character with a simple costume change and varied accent, in a charming and engaging way. Her two colleagues are Alex Parry mainly as William Hare and the cripple Jim and Hayden Wood as William Burke and Dr Knox (who buys the bodies) with each also playing the various other victims. The height difference between Wood and Daghorn is also used to good effect.

Director Abigail Pickard Price makes the most of the simple room set in her direction and has great fun with small doors in the back wall to depict the various houses in the square where Burke and Hare try to sell the body of Donald, their first transaction. The tone is set from the very start when an actor sheepishly enters the stage to take up his position as a dead body on the slab. When all three are on stage together, she gets laughs by the on stage actors barely disguised attempts to voice a fourth off stage character or to create a sound effect. It is imaginative and inventive and in keeping with the tongue in cheek story telling.

The set design by Toots Butcher is intended for a small venue tour but is highly effective with its sepia pictures and blood stained curtains and repurposing of practical props. The set is dominated by the sign "miseratione non mercede" which means for compassion not for gain and is borrowed from a London Operating theatre but the production subtitle "every body makes a profit" is perhaps a better summary of the play's theme. 

The scenes are linked by scene changes covered with folk music played on two guitars and rhythmic tapping of feet and feature the song "Whisky in a jar" which was a hit for Thin Lizzy and the Dubliners "Whisky Whisky Nancy Whisky", reflecting the alcohol used to subdue victims and preserve body parts.

This is a lively and fun production, perhaps fifteen minutes too long, but effectively tells the story and revels in its own theatricality. It does not dwell on the macabre murders but focuses on the motivation of the perpetrators and makes for an entertaining two hours.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: F in stalls | Price of Ticket: £20
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