Burke and Hare

Tom Wentworth
Watermill Theatre, originally created by Jenny Wren Productions
Jermyn Street Theatre
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The murdering Burke and Hare partnership is the subject of Jermyn Street Theatre’s festive alternative to panto, first staged by Cotswold company Jenny Wren at the Watermill Theatre, where it is the comic completion of their Rebels season.

An opening that sets up the macabre tale as comedy precedes its telling, which is loosely framed as a lecture by Edinburgh University anatomist De Munro (Katy Daghorn) that includes the re-enactment of the story.

It is 1828 when Edinburgh was the world leader in studying anatomy but running short of bodies for dissection, for the law required that they could only use the bodies of criminals, suicides and foundlings. Dr Munro had a contract with the authorities that provided him with bodies from the gallows, but rival surgeon Dr Knox needed corpses to cut up at his lectures. Burke and Hare, who had met as navvies digging the Caledonian Canal, provided them.

Burke and Hare weren’t “resurrectionists”, digging up graves to steal the cadavers; they began when a visitor staying at Mrs Hare’s lodging house died of influenza having run up a hefty bill. She recouped her losses when they sold the body to Knox. Bodies for cash: where to find more of them? With an influenza epidemic as cover, they set out to provide them.

With a cast of just three—Katy Daghorn (as Mrs Hare), Alex Parry (William Hare) and Hayden Wood (William Burke) also doubling surgeons, lodgers and servants and all three in turn donning the hat and coat of anatomy student Ferguson—it is an escalating parade of comic invention interspersed with musical outbreaks as their bloody trade provides at least sixteen bodies.

Toots Butcher provides a lecture theatre setting displaying anatomical drawings and the motto “Miseratione non mercede“ (for compassion, not for gain) that rapidly adapts to other settings with pillows representing most of the cadavers, though there are gory body parts too.

Director Abigail Pickard Price keeps the action fast-moving like a rapid-fire sequence trying a succession of university departments in search of one in need of a body and a hilarious attempt by Alex Parry to perform parents, siblings, grandparents and pets of Burke’s fiancée. Though that last is a little over-extended, all three cast keep things going with great gusto and a light touch. When at one point they recruit a little help from the audience, they adeptly handled the interjections of an unexpectedly lively corpse!

With the song “Nancy Whisky” almost its theme tune (a dram or two helps makes its victims more manageable), this is a light-hearted audience pleaser in which blood-drenched aprons hold no horrors.

Howard Loxton