Theatre Burke and Hare
★★★☆☆ Jermyn Street theatre, London Until 21 December
You learn something new all the time. I had always assumed that Burke and Hare, who in 1828 supplied Edinburgh anatomists with cadavers, were grave-robbers. But this show, written by Tom Wentworth and first seen at the Watermill, Newbury, reminds us that the couple were cold-blooded killers, responsible for 16 deaths. Grateful as I am for the information, I feel the show strives too hard to be a merry romp and puts more emphasis on the tellers than the tale.
The whole point is that there are just three actors – two men and a woman – who play everyone from Burke and Hare to the multiple murder victims and the corpsehungry Scottish medicos. You could say the show is all about splitting Hares since Alex Parry is one moment the lugubrious killer and the next a foppish traveller or a destitute beggar.
Katy Daghorn is even more impressive in that she switches in a second from the shrewish Mrs Hare to a demure servant and at one point, as windows open in the back wall like flaps in an Advent calendar, to the varied occupants of an Edinburgh square.
Hayden Wood also moves swiftly from the hard-up Burke to the acquisitive Dr Knox, who is arguably the real villain of the story.
There are faint echoes of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, especially since it is Hare’s wife, like the pie-making Mrs Lovett, who sees that the dead can be a source of profit. I was reminded even more of The Play That Goes Wrong, in which two of the cast have appeared: although, strictly speaking, everything here goes right, there is the same relentless jokeyness and awareness of the theatre’s absurdity.
It is all very deftly done in Abigail Pickard Price’s production. But, precisely because the show sets out to restore the facts, I wish it had told us more about Burke’s trial, the ability of the Hares to escape scot-free and the case’s impact on the medical establishment. I am all for seasonal jollity but, in the end, murder is no joke.
A merry romp of murder … Burke and Hare