‘It is an absolute blast’: BURKE & HARE – Jermyn Street Theatre ★★★★

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Jermyn Street Theatre – until 21 December 2018

Oyez, Oyez. Let it be known that this suspenseful yet dreary political season has become officially the Year Of Dark Panto.  Down at The Bridge we had Martin McDonagh’s “very very very” dark – and somewhat silly – imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s Congolese attic-dwarf-prisoner who never was. Now, with fewer pretensions and a lot more laughs, give a hand to Tom Wentworth’s spirited and largely true story of Burk & Hare.

Their trade in 1828 was murdering lodgers in Mrs Hare’s boarding-house and selling their bodies, for seven to ten quid apiece, to a keen anatomist of the Edinburgh medical school. Up from the Watermill at Newbury, directed con brio by Abigail Pickard Price, it is an absolute blast. It is done in the dramatic-cum-vaudeville-reduced-Shakespeare-National-Theatre-of-Brent genre: rapid costume changes, doubling and tripling and deliberate undermanning. Its two-hour merriment should keep the tiny Jermyn packed nicely from here to nearly Christmas.

It’s a three-hander, with Alex Parry as Hare, Hayden Wood as Burke and the hilariously fierce Katy Daghorn (like Wood, she has Play that Goes Wrong experience, always a good sign). She is both their womenfolk and also introduces the piece as Monro, the indignant rival surgeon who lost out by not being on the Burke & Hare customer list. But equipped with a splendid variety of pre-Victorian lowlife costumes –  leprous tailcoats, repellent mufflers, broken hats and disgusting bloodstained aprons – they all play random others: locals, doctors, visitors, a large extended family: anyone, depending on who’s needed at that moment on the tiny stage.

A stage which is – courtesy of designer Toots Butcher – atmospherically decorated with anatomical drawings and filthy side curtains. The hurtling exchanges of mop-caps, fancy hats and aprons is rapid, but you soon work out that whoever’s temporarily got the maroon tailcoat and top-hat is having to represent Ferguson, a thick medical student and boozy habitué of the lodging-house bar and its passing tarts.

They are all three rapid, adept and funny, and when strictly necessary co-opt one of the front row as a corpse, on which the anatomists lavish repulsively descriptive insults while it shakes helplessly like the rest of us (“Och, aye…a little gas escaping from the mooth there”).     From time to time Burke and Hare, being Irishmen,   break out into choruses of “Nancy Whisky” and “Whisky in the Jar”.

There are some fine set-pieces, like the pair’s attempt to shop around Surgeons’ Square for a buyer, with windows opening and shutting to reveal various versions of Daghorn.  The pathetic  bumbling stupidity of the pair  and the brisk exasperation of  Mrs Hare endears the awful trio just enough to take our minds off their  murderousness .  And like all the best nonsenses in this genre, the play has the nerve to offer one moment of proper heart and pathos:   dropping into quieter song and a moment of very brief historical narration when a late victim –  Daft Jamie –  is disposed of .  He was a pathetic but beloved figure in the Edinburgh community and his murder caused, it is reported,  the greatest outrage . So he gets his moment ,  Parry giving him a brief, elusive moment of dignity before the next joke .  Nice.

 

boxoffice   jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to 21 dec

rating four

Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.