Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: 'Burke and Hare' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 11th December 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Burke and Hare have slipped neatly into the British popular consciousness as a byword for graverobbers. However, they weren't sneaking around in graveyards in the thick 19th-century fog with spades and burlap sacks over their shoulders - they were cold-blooded murderers who discovered that fresh corpses were worth a lot of money and decided that if there was a demand, they would supply.

On paper it's a grim tale, though substantially enlivened by Tom Wentworth's horror/comedy adaptation. Set primarily in the grubby bowels of Mrs Hare's boarding house, the show is populated by a quietly desperate cast of characters, all played by Katy Daghorn, Alex Parry and Hayden Wood. They are almost all indebted or impoverished, their clothes ragged, nursing worrying coughs with their only salvation coming at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.

When one of the tenants of the boarding house dies of influenza, Burke, Hare and Mrs Hare decide to flog the body to the anatomists on Surgeon's Square, who are hungry for corpses due to constrictive laws about dissection. They pay a princely sum, which gives the trio a grisly incentive to keep a close eye on the more sickly residents of the boarding house... and if they were to 'help' some of the worse off along, that'd almost be like doing them a favour, right?

Though Burke and Hare is a comedy, it also deftly sketches the economic incentives for the crimes and acts a neat Freakonomics style indictment of the free market (the shadow of Edinburgh's own Adam Smith looms large over the play). Burke and Hare (and Mrs Hare) aren't driven to murder because of some innate bloodlust, but by market forces that they feel almost duty-bound to serve. You can almost see the cogs turning in their head as they figure that someone must profit from this scarcity and it may as well be them - as their profits begin to grow they resort to ever more gruesome and murderous tactics to stay in business. 

While all this is whirring away in the background, the foreground is a nicely-paced and energetically performed tale in which the fourth wall is never far from breaking. Taking advantage of the framing device that we're watching a company retell the story, we get neat moments like the three cast members all being on stage at once and realising they have nobody left in the cast to play the corpse - an audience member is dutifully (and hilariously) recruited from the front row).

Though each of the three performers plays many roles, the play doesn't want for strong characterisation. The titular pair are nicely sketched, with Wood's Burke threading a particularly nice line between goofy and sinister. Parry also excels, particularly in an exhausting-looking scene where he's called on to play an entire family at once, with the cast tossing in new family members to torment him further. But the most curiously chameleonic is Daghorn, who somehow manages to look like a completely different person depending on which hat she's wearing - her dippily romantic Fergus is a highlight of the night.

My only minor criticism is that I'd have liked to have seen a more graphic representation of the bodies piling up. Due to the constraints of the cast, these are generally portrayed as small sacks, perhaps with a hat on top to signify who it is. It gives the play a slight feeling of bloodlessness where a more grand guignol tack might have cranked up the horror and cemented the grisly aspects of their trade. 

Still, Burke and Hare is a fine antidote for anyone that craves something with a darker edge amidst the Christmas cheer. It's stylish, entertaining, well-performed and conceived with obvious intelligence. 

Burke and Hare is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 21 December. Tickets here.

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