Edinburgh has the unlikely claim to fame of being the last place in Britain where anyone was hanged for blasphemy, the poor unfortunate being one Thomas Aikenhead, a rather thoughtless student who made his anti-religious comments in the presence of those who did not appreciate the banter, at a time when rigidity of thought was paramount. In our present day climate of acute political correctness, university muzzling of free speech, and a general backlash against certain aspects of history, it is refreshing to find the rollicking â€œI am Thomasâ€ – described as â€œa brutal comedy with songsâ€ – taking on this serious topic and giving it a good rousing musical kicking.
As a co-production between The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, the unlikely named Told by an Idiot, the National Theatre of Scotland and in association with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, this collaborative work by Paul Hunter and Iain Johnstone, with lyrics by Simon Armitage, has created a sparky, fast-moving show where heavy issues are lightly raised in a series of vignettes, some bizarre, some ludicrous. This approach seems to work, highlighting the underlying farce beneath so many tragedies, the banal at the edge of brutality.
Dizzily moving between the present day, 1697, and the stable at Bethlehem, each member of the cast in turn becomes Thomas, identifiable by an I am Thomas T-shirt, which ultimately, evocatively mutates into the unmistakeable Je suis Thomas. Free speech down the ages is on trial, free speech down the ages is at risk of the red card, the summary execution.
The music can be glorious. Myra McFadyen in particular at times has an almost Piaf quality to her voice, particularly when singing the oft repeated refrain that heralds the drowning of yet another witch. There are two haunting accordions, a keyboard, and some achingly evocative refrains from John Pfumojena, whose last plaintive cries set our final mood. Itâ€™s not totally polished, itâ€™s not pitch perfect, but it certainly carries forward the theme of â€œThe Crucibleâ€ in a fresh and challenging manner, and ticks all the boxes for local interest and a universal, fundamental theme.
Lyceum Theatre until April 9th
for more information: www.lyceum.org.uk or telephone 0131 248 4848