Resurrecting Bobby Awl

Brian Catling
Avalon and BBC Arts

Resurrecting Bobby Awl Credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Raised in the harsh brutality of Edinburgh during the early nineteenth century, Bobby Awl (real name Robert Kirkwood) became something of a folk hero among the brothels and ale houses of Fleshmarket Steps. In fact, it was thought that his name would never be forgotten.

Born physically disabled and facially disfigured, his parents abandoned him for being “less than human” and yet it was his humanity that earned him his reputation. Following his death, aged 22, his small, malnourished body was dissected by Robert Knox in the very room in which this play is performed. However, Bobby Awl’s memory was overshadowed by another of Edinburgh’s young unfortunates: Daft Jamie, whose body was recognised by medical students when laid out on Knox’s slab, leading to the arrests of Burke, Hare and their accomplices.

In this atmospheric setting, Maisie Greenwood, Georgie Morrell and Ruth Everett make their appeal for Bobby’s name to be restored to memory. Using Brian Catling’s exquisitely written script, the key character’s in Awl’s life are called as witnesses to give their account of this ill-fated young man. Their playful characters provide some commentary on Awl’s abusers and advocates, guiding the action skilfully and with good humour.

However, there are elements of the production which didn’t really work for me: despite Matthew Darcy’s subtle performance, (supposedly intended to draw the audience more proactively into the act of remembrance) the device he is given to use felt contrived and added little to provoke further empathy or connection.

Moreover, despite the cast’s engaging, slick storytelling, Josh Roche’s direction seems to struggle at times to provide clarity through the rich density of Carling’s language. Therefore, we are left with a deft performance lecture about a fascinating character, which requires concentrated attention throughout.

Audiences with an interest in folk history or those seeking an alternative, evocative presentation of Edinburgh’s dark past would find much to love here.

Reviewer: Tony Trigwell-Jones

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