The names Burke and Hare are infamous in Edinburgh – and I’m not referring to the lap-dancing club that (chillingly) chooses to name itself after two of history’s most prolific serial killers. Their story is fascinating (indeed, I’ve featured the duo myself in my novel, Seventeen Coffins). The Fringe has always offered a platform to am-dram theatre groups and it’s gratifying to see this ambitious musical version of the tale selling out the spacious venue on a Tuesday afternoon.
Co-written by John Montgomery and Derek Batchelor, Flesh relates the story in flashback, explaining how two Irish navvies, working on the digging of the Union Canal, came to murder sixteen people and sell their bodies for dissection. Billy Burke (Jeremy Frazer) was outwardly affable and charming, while his associate, William Hare (Roddy McLeod), was the complete opposite. How they came to work with the well respected anatomist, Dr Robert Knox (Frank Burr), would seem far-fetched if it weren’t absolutely true and, while a little bit of poetic licence has been used here, the story sticks pretty much to the facts. And how apt that the show appears at Surgeon’s Hall, where much of the subterfuge occurred.
References to contemporary tropes – Netflix, zero-hours contracts and luxury cruises all receive a namecheck – are at first jarring but, once the idea beds in, I begin to appreciate the writer’s intentions.
This is a big cast by Fringe standards – fifteen actors in all – so there’s a lot of stage traffic, and this isn’t always well-managed. Scene changes are a real issue: there are too many extended blackouts disrupting the flow (the design of the venue doesn’t help, with props – and sometimes bodies – being dragged off through the central curtains into a clearly lit backstage). Incorporating the transitions into the scenes would improve this enormously.
Niggles aside, everyone involved in the show gives one hundred percent. I particularly enjoy Alison Henry as Burke’s long-suffering partner, Nell (her rendition of No-one Was Listening is delightful) and Tegan Gourlay’s dancing is also a standout.
But this, of course, is a musical version of the story and, happily, the songs are the show’s strongest suit, ranging from poignant ballads to swaggering Celtic rock that sometimes recalls Thin Lizzy at the peak of their considerable powers.
The applause at the show’s conclusion is enthusiastic and heartfelt and I find myself humming the infectious chorus of Sailing to America as I leave. Those who’d like to take home an extra pound of Flesh are invited to purchase a CD of the soundtrack. And why not? They’re cracking tunes.