The­atre Burke and Hare

The Guardian - G2 - - Live Reviews - Michael Billing­ton

★★★☆☆ 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

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