Burke and Hare is the very definition of a delicious theatrical treat. Imbued with a darkness that comes from the play's source material, and with the ability to pluck delicately at our heartstrings one moment before delivering a thick slice of uproarious farce in the next, this is another rollickingly good night at the Watermill.
The play chronicles the true story of William Burke and William Hare, a pair of entrepreneurs who found a unique solution to meet the demand for medical specimens in Victorian Edinburgh. Their bold idea was to start killing people and to sell their bodies on to academics. But as business booms and the bodies build up, it is only a matter of time before their spree comes to a grisly end...
Central to the appeal of Burke and Hare are a trio of performers who bring exuberant confidence and energy to the show, meaning the evening's momentum never falters. Katy Daghorn makes a sympathetic and heart-wrenchingly naive Helen McDougal (Burke's love interest) and a ferociously devious Mrs Hare, as well as a plethora of other memorable parts. Haydn Wood, as Burke, is surprisingly charming and likeable, considering he spends the play killing off a huge swathe of
Tom Wentworth's witty script and Abigail Pickard Price's pacy direction are to the show's advantage, meaning proceedings fly by with several memorable moments. There is a wonderful lyricism to the play, with tuneful folk songs used throughout. Another standout element is Toots Butcher's ingenious design. Burke and Hare is a touring production, travelling to village halls, and so the set has a deceptive simplicity to it. However it finds useful ways to store props and musical instruments for later use and has several panels that are used in an amusingly effective manner. A great deal of fun comes from the surprises the set has in store for us.
At times this show is a sort-of proto-Sweeney Todd, and if the play doesn't quite reach those dizzying heights it is not for lack of trying. It is fast, funny, at times sad, and, when Mrs Hare is at her most manipulative, rather tense. Aided by an energetic cast brimming with talent, the production makes a convincing case for productions that tour to areas removed from established theatres. Bravo to the Watermill Theatre for another stellar show.