The short life of 19th-century Edinburgh urchin Robert Kirkwood or “Bobby Awl” has long been a subject of fascination for the Scottish artist and novelist Brian Catling, author of The Vorrh Trilogy.
Having come across a plaster cast of Kirkwood’s head in the Edinburgh Phrenological Collection some years ago, he has created artworks inspired by him and now he’s made him the subject of his first play.
Drawing on an obscure chapbook about Kirkwood’s life, Catling sets out to place this forgotten figure centre stage.
Three female performers – Georgie Morrell, Maisie Greenwood and Ruth Everett – tell his story. Born disabled, Kirkwood was abandoned by his parents, but grew up to be something of an Edinburg character. For a brief blink in time his name was known, until he died at the age of 22 after being kicked by a mule.
It’s possible to glean most of this from Catling’s play, along with a sense of 1820s Edinburgh, the city of Burke and Hare – Bobby Awl was a friend of their victim Daft Jamie – but the style of writing is at times almost frustratingly impenetrable.
Few shows can be as well suited to the atmospheric anatomy theatre space at Summerhall, but Josh Roche’s production lacks narrative momentum and clarity. It shines only a thin, flickering light on this forgotten life.