Burke & Hare
Reviewed – 25th April 2018
“an amusing and brisk take on a sinister true crime”
At a time when popular culture is pervaded by zombies and the undead it would seem a play based on the nefarious exploits of Burke and Hare is apposite and this show doesn’t disappoint in seeking to tell the grisly story of their misdeeds.
It is however, a misapprehension to consider them as grave robbers, or Resurrectionists, as those who traded in corpses at the time were euphemistically referred to as they never actually dug anyone up. Edinburgh where they lived in 1828 was renowned as a centre for anatomical studies and there was always a shortage of cadavers. The “lazy Irishmen” as they are wryly described, abetted by Hare’s harpy of a wife – the “dragon lady” – supplied the demand by murdering sixteen people. They used an influenza epidemic as a cover and their client Dr Knox wasn’t one to ask questions.
The set (Toots Butcher) immediately drew one into this dark underworld with its busy squalor and ominously blood splattered gowns and curtains that masked the two entrances through which a seemingly endless stream of new characters zipped on and off in true Molieresque style. Ironically the legend “Miseratione Non Mercede” (Compassion Not Gain) hung over the whole proceedings. The lighting (Harry Armytage) was skilfully used going from bright to increasing gloom to demonstrate the looming menace of the story as the gruesome twosome and the shrill Mrs Hare started out on their desperate careers.
Music, performed on guitar and mandolin by the male cast and whisky featured in most every scene including several renditions of “Whisky In The Jar” which also formed a suitably rowdy and well deserved encore.
Alex Parry played the permanently inebriated and hen pecked Mr Hare as well as many of the victims, Hayden Wood was the largely clueless but ultimately conscientious Mr Burke and also Dr Knox, and Katy Daghorn was the harridan Mrs Burke and Dr Munro who narrated much of the sordid tale. All played with frenetic gusto and good comic timing making some bits seem almost ad libbed. Scenes that stood out were the rivalry between Knox and Munro as they vied for audiences for their dissections making excellent use of the height difference between the players. And the introduction of an entire family onto the stage leaving Alex Parry with the onerous task of portraying all seven, including a parrot, with only two hats as props was a bravura performance.
As to a favourite sound bite that would have to be “Care to catch a hanging sometime?” as a unique chat up line. Overall an amusing and brisk take on a sinister true crime that is to be recommended.
Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com
Photography by Philip Tull
Burke & Hare
Watermill Theatre until 5th May
Previously at this venue