Resurrecting Bobby Awl

Aug 17 2019 | By More

★★★★☆  Accessible complexity

Summerhall (Venue26): Wed 31 July – Sun 25 Aug 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

Resurrecting Bobby Awl, from Avalon and BBC Arts at Summerhall, shines a light on to a forgotten corner of Edinburgh with grace and economy.

B. Catling is a genuine polymath – artist, poet, performance artist, creator of The Stumbling Block, Its Index, an extraordinary attempt to represent sculpture in the written word. In recent years he has found himself coming to unexpected prominence, and display tables at Waterstones, with his fantasy trilogy The Vorrh. Here, however, he turns to an unexplored footnote of Edinburgh folklore in what is his debut as a playwright.

Ruth Everett. Pic: David Monteith-Hodge

Bobby Awl, real name Robert Kirkwood – born with physical deformities and often the subject of abuse – was apparently a well-known Edinburgh character in his day but has been eclipsed by the part his friend ‘Daft Jamie’ played in the story of the murderous Burke and Hare.

Awl himself is not portrayed directly on stage, in an elusive and puckish depiction that has a great deal going for it. The official description as ‘new writing/performance art’ may very well put some people off, when much of this is closer to comedy, with some of the performing relying apparently on diffidence, embarrassment and the inability to do a proper Scottish accent.

There is poetry too, and while there is a diffuse feel to some of it, nothing is remotely impenetrable. While this could sit oddly with some of the almost knockabout elements, director Josh Roche achieves a remarkably coherent whole.

There is a likeability to the performances of Georgie Morrell, Maisie Greenwood and Ruth Everett that carries the production along, to say nothing of the tremendous timing. There is also the involvement of Matthew Darcy, about which it is best not to say too much. Suffice to say that what appears to be a theatrical joke takes on a vaguer, yet more serious tone.

appropriate setting

That is the most interesting feature about this – it is as playful as it is serious, as fictional as it is factual, as poetic as it is trivial. There are points about the treatment of those regarded as different, and the corrosive effects of poverty, that are no less vital for being made in a less direct way. There is a responsibility being placed on the audience that is greater than in many more didactic or ‘interactive’ productions.

Ruth Everett, Georgie Morrell and Maisie Greenwood. Pic: David Monteith-Hodge

The vitality of the writing and performances would shine through anywhere, but gain tremendously from the appropriate setting of Summerhall’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre. The space is utilised cleverly, with light and shadow particularly well used. Simple but effective use of props adds greatly to the experience, and there is an exactness to the whole thing that belies the studiedly throwaway air it exudes at times.

Much like the head of Bobby discovered by Catling in the Edinburgh Phrenological Collection that apparently kickstarted the whole thing, this could be seen as a curiosity, but there is a strange compulsion to this production that speaks well of Catling’s latter-day conversion to the ‘legitimate’ theatre.

Running time 55 minutes (no interval)
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL (Venue 26);
Wednesday 31 July– Sunday 25 August 2019
Daily (not Mondays) at 4.00 pm

Tickets and details:

Maisie Greenwood, Georgie Morrell and Ruth Everett. Pic: David Monteith-Hodge


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