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Burke & Hare

Tom Wentworth
New Wolsey Theatre
New Wolsey, Ipswich

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Cast of Burke & Hare Credit: Will Green photography
James Mack as Hare Credit: Will Green photography
Cast of Burke & Hare Credit: Will Green photography

This frenetic romp through the lives of these two notorious Edinburgh grave robbers from the 1820s goes at a whirlwind pace, and the cast of three work extremely hard, but at the end, did I know much more about the story of these men and their wives? I’m not sure I did.

This production has been three years in the making due to lockdown . It’s billed as a "musical romp with three actor-musicians", but don’t expect a lot of music. There’s a folk song "Whisky Whisky Nancy Whisky" sung on repeat a few times and a rendition of Thin Lizzy’s "Whisky in the Jar"—and that’s about your lot.

The set designed by Toots Butcher is amazing: a surround of doors and cupboards in the style of a 19th century lecture theatre, which is used to full effect and serves as a boarding house and a street, as well as the lecture theatre of anatomist Robert Knox and his female counterpart (who of course wouldn’t have existed in the early 1800s as women were not allowed to practise till much later).

Hayden Wood plays William Burke and James Mack his counterpart William Hare, but they also play lots and lots and lots of other characters. Josie Dunn plays both their wives and an assortment of other male and female characters, often with just a change of hat or accent. In fact, the object of the exercise seems to be how many characters can be fitted into a single play? (30 apparently!) This leads of course to a number of farcical situations where characters are obviously missing when they should be present, and a very complicated set-up towards the end of the play where Mack plays all of Burke’s fiancée Helen’s family who have arrived for the wedding, including the dog.

This is all reasonably amusing if that’s your thing, but it does get tedious after a while, and it does mean that there is no development or emotional investment in any of the characters, especially as the actors also swop around the characters they play between them.

Although its commonly supposed these men were grave robbers, in fact these two were notorious murderers who bumped off nigh on 16 people. But it’s all played for laughs so there’s no menace or sense of tension or intrigue. We basically know what’s going to happen and are asked more to admire the skill of the actors as they change from boarding house student to beggar or drunk rather than invest in the characters or the storyline.

Tom Wentworth’s script is light-hearted and never stretches the intellect too far, and has more than a passing nod to another notorious murderer Sweeney Todd, but without the height or depth.

But if you like farce and want an evening of frenetic black comedy, then this is for you.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes