Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 9 April 2016
Cheerfully serious, uneven and ultimately triumphant, Told by An Idiot’s I Am Thomas, at Edinburgh’s Lyceum as part of its UK tour, is unpredictable, fascinating and occasionally infuriating.
This ‘brutal comedy with songs’ deals with the story of Thomas Aikenhead. Until now, he has been little more than a footnote in Scottish history; in 1697, the 20-year-old student was the last person in Britain to be hanged for blasphemy. Some have sought to recast him as a secularist martyr, but it is equally likely that he was just a big daft laddie.
The show, presented by the Lyceum in collaboration with Told By An Idiot, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, eschews any attempt at a straight retelling or historical drama. Instead, its cheerfully anachronistic approach ends up as more of a musical revue or sketch show, often somewhere between 7:84 and pantomime. What it does show, however, is that it doesn’t matter who Aikenhead was, or what he stood for.
By having all of the cast play Aikenhead at different times, it seeks to make him a universal figure – not because he was important, but because he was completely unimportant, and treated ludicrously harshly. The title’s reference to Je Suis Charlie is clear from the outset – to the extent that the Je Suis Thomas T-shirt at the end seems a definite gilding of the lily.
The controversies over Charlie Hebdo and no-platforming show the dangers of limiting free speech just because you find someone’s views disagreeable, or how they express them childish. The themes of tolerance shown here are made all the more relevant as a result.
There is also a definite echo of ‘I Am Spartacus’, from the film famously scripted by Dalton Trumbo even though he was officially blacklisted by Hollywood, and which also seeks to use history as a prism to reflect modern politics. This could make the production sound dry, which is far from the truth. There is a co-operative, freewheeling feel that gives it a real fizz, energy and sense of fun.
Director Paul Hunter has done well to give the piece an overall shape that is largely successful. As can happen with devised pieces, however, it can seem fragmented, and the quality is decidedly variable. Some of the comic items are less impressive – the recurring ‘football pundit’ pieces, complete with obvious remarks and old jokes, would have been jettisoned by an average student comedy revue at an early stage. Having a first half more than twice the length of the second does also suggest problems somewhere along the line.
The good far outweighs the bad, however. Many of the humorous elements are much more impressive, with John Cobb and Myra McFadyen bringing spot-on timing. There are also some extremely effective pieces of business with props and scenery. These, like Laura Hopkins’s witty set, are very much from the school of shoestring touring theatre, albeit on a grander scale.
Seemingly disparate elements combine surprisingly effectively. While there are some comic songs – with one cheerfully sweary early number that trades on Aikenhead’s obscurity standing out – the more contemplative pieces are the more impressive.
Simon Armitage is certainly best known as a poet, but there has always been the sneaking suspicion that he went down that route only because he couldn’t be a rock star. Here, many of his lyrics, in combination with Iain Johnstone’s more plangent melodies, see him in a more introspective, 1970s singer-songwriter mood.
Even poets as accessible as Armitage sometimes struggle with the different discipline of lyric-writing, ending up wordy and portentous, but he seems to have got the balance about right here. Johnstone, meanwhile, is an indefatigable performer and musical director, providing a variety of styles, with some melancholy tunes with touches of tango and klezmer particularly haunting. The cast provide inventive musical backing and very fine singing, with McFadyen, John Pfumojena and Hannah McPake particularly strong.
Everyone gets a chance to show off their versatility, with Amanda Hadingue relishing the more absurd elements, while Charlie Folorunsho and Dominic Marsh provide much needed seriousness.
This combination of gloom and glee characterises a production that is driven, thought-provoking and above all great fun.
Running time 2 hours (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre
Wednesday 23 March – Saturday 9 April 2016
Evenings: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm; Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.00 pm
I Am Thomas on tour:
23 Mar – 9 Apr
12 – 16 Apr
20 – 30 Apr
Wilton’s Music Hall