Music: Iain Johnstone
Lyrics: Simon Armitage
Writers: Told by an Idiot
Director: Paul Hunter
Reviewer: Iain Sykes
Who is Thomas Aikenhead? Or as the opening song of Told by an Idiot’s I Am Thomas more colourfully asks, Thomas Aikenhead, Who the f*** are you? Well (history lesson time), he was the last person in Britain to be hanged for the crime of blasphemy way back in 1697, and here, in I Am Thomas, the subject of debate in an Edinburgh council chamber as they look for local figures to be the subject of a statue, having already exhausted the ready list of Dolly the Sheep and Archie Gemmill.
One might also ask “who is Thomas?” of this self-billed “brutal comedy with music”, as each of the actors takes their turn to play the title character in a parade of scenes where the dark humour is often found in the pointed songs of composer Iain Johnstone and lyricist Simon Armitage. A church service where the congregation practice self-flagellation and list just about every single way for sinners to be punished, before going into the chorus about their God being a loving God, is typical of the black humour. But, when it’s called for, Johnstone and Armitage produce some genuinely moving music too. The flashback scenes where the Lord Advocate’s (Dominic Marsh) family is drowned for refusing to compromise their own religion, is accompanied beautifully by Myra McFadyen’s singing and throughout the play, John Pfumojena brings some haunting African sounds to the fore.
Playing on themes of religious intolerance and freedom of speech, I Am Thomas is transported from the 17th century to a 1970’s Edinburgh, where the Advocate General listens to Bay City Rollers tapes and Thomas is a singer/songwriter plying his trade around open mic nights. The overall stylistic theme of the play is one of anarchic weirdness which helps to gel together what are several different theatrical styles, although if one bit seems a little intrusive and gets a little repetitive, it’s the appearance of television football pundits discussing Thomas’ plight in sporting clichés.
One never really gets to identify with Thomas the man as each scene takes him and his journey as an idea battling against the coldly calculating, tactical religious enforcer, James Stewart, the Lord Advocate, brought to life by Dominic Marsh’s strong performance, and it’s from this idea that the parallels are strongly drawn together with the emotional Je Suis Charlie movement from the tragic real-life events of early 2015.
It’s a big story to tell for Told by an Idiot, but it’s one that they tell with their renowned dark humour, albeit slightly hit and miss, but what really shines through the occasionally muddled anarchy is the music and lyrics of Johnstone and Armitage and the fine performances from the eight strong ensemble.
Runs until 5th March 2016 |Photo: Manuel Harlan