Burke & Hare
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 30th November 2018
“A quiet night in the West End this is not. And quite right too. For what could be more festive than death, deceit and intrigue?”
Messrs William Burke and Hare have passed into mythology as notorious grave robbers who turned a profit in 1820s Scotland flogging corpses to medical schools. Tom Wentworth’s comic script revisits their tale, claiming to be an ‘objective’ rendering, ‘rooted firmly in reality’. But those seeking an authoritative retelling of Burke and Hare’s story need not apply. This is history played for laughs – a mission very successfully achieved.
Indeed, there’s frank admission of the history’s slipperiness throughout. The opening scene sees the actors in and out of character, clamouring to rehabilitate the reputations of their respective roles. This also serves as a handy introduction to this micro-cast of three.
Such lean staffing certainly leaves nowhere to hide, but this strong ensemble pull it off. Impeccable comic timing delivers laugh-out-loud moments, with Alex Parry and Hayden Wood especially effective as the dastardly duo.
Also strong, Katy Daghorn as, well, almost everyone else, at times comes off a touch mannered. As with all the actors here, her ready command of accents is impressive but her physicality can feel awkward. This is a small niggle, though, given the dexterity shown by this apparently tireless trio in what must be an exhausting performance.
The cast canter through a merry repertoire of Victorian Edinburgh’s finest. Indeed, real fun is had with the limits of a three-person cast in a confined space. One gag sees the cast stumped when they realise that, all on stage, they are without a corpse. Considerable charm is applied by Wood and a conscript found: sit on the front row at your peril.
This quip wears thinner in an extended sequence in the second half, but Parry’s shattering performance of every member of an extended family group is nonetheless impressive. This retold joke, though, perhaps eats into time that might have been better spent unravelling the tail-end of the narrative a little more; the conclusion is upon us with little warning and the outcome of the eventual criminal trial feels rushed.
Every resource is put to work to create atmosphere and place in this tiny theatre. This includes intelligent uses of music and sound, such as the metronome set ticking as we wait for yet another lodger to shuffle off this mortal coil. Mention must also be made of the cast’s really beautifully executed close harmonies, from drinking songs to ballads. Lighting, too, is neat, variously suggesting the fug of an Edinburgh street, a sterile anatomy lecture hall and the snug boarding house amongst others.
All in all, Burke and Hare offers surprising levels of merriment for a play about resurrection men. There is balance here – we’re given real menace leading up to and pathos at the death of one key player – but the night rattles along at a fair pace. A quiet night in the West End this is not. And quite right too. For what could be more festive than death, deceit and intrigue?
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Photography by Philip Tull
Burke & Hare
Jermyn Street Theatre until 21st December
Our review of the original Watermill production:
Previously reviewed at this venue: