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Burke and Hare review at Watermill, Newbury – ‘a lively black comedy’

Burke and Hare at Watermill Theatre, Newbury. Photo: Philip Tull
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In the 19th century, there was money to be made digging up fresh cadavers from the graveyard and selling them on to surgeons for dissection. Burke and Hare went one step further. After they successfully sold the body of a lodger who died in their house, they became opportunist murderers tapping into a voracious market that didn’t ask too many questions.

Tom Wentworth’s lively comedy drama tells their frankly unbelievable story with music hall verve, a meticulous set design from Toots Butcher and lots of imagination. While it doesn’t wholly make light of the case, Wentworth evades a moral message in favour of comedy theatrics and a ripping yarn.

It does seem a tad unfair that Helen McDougal, Hare’s partner, takes the blame for instigating the murders, when the trial transcripts found no proof.

This said, Wentworth and director Abigail Pickard Price are not making a documentary, but a fast-paced piece of vaudeville complete with audience participation, foot tapping songs, snappy visual gags and an abundance of comedy accents. The team of three  versatile players switch nimbly between characters, with Katy Daghorn’s imperious Dr Monro acting as narrator.

Alex Parry’s William Hare is loud and boastful and easily dominates  Hayden Wood’s love-struck, rather feckless William Burke.  It’s Daghorn’s waspish, threatening McDougal who masterminds the operation however and while Wentworth’s interpretation may be unsympathetic, it does allow us to find empathy with history’s most famous resurrection men.

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Lively black comedy about the notorious resurrection men performed with music hall verve