Theatre review: I am Thomas (2 stars)

Theatre review: I am Thomas

credit: Manuel Harlan

A rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras

It’s unfortunate that the words that Thomas Aitkenhead used to describe The Bible make such a perfect epitaph for this collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland, Told By An Idiot and the Royal Lyceum Theatre. Telling the story of the last man to be executed for blasphemy, I am Thomas is a disappointingly incoherent mess of comedy, devised performance cliche and political allusions. With Aitkenhead’s biography unable to bear the weight of contemporary debates about free speech – even the programme notes acknowledge he was less a revolutionary than a naive student who fell foul of a specific set of historical circumstances, the cast battle bravely with material that combines witless comedy, lightweight musical numbers and mysterious references to the 1970s – a comparison of times that never reveals its purpose.

With the exception of the cast, who are solid, I am Thomas is consistently disappointing. Not only is the humour predictable, it refuses to die. A sketch featuring two football pundits discussing Aitkenhead’s journey repeats itself with the potency of a Christmas brussel sprout, Dolly the Sheep prances around the stage during the inevitable court scene (itself a trope that has been a lazy shortcut to dramatic tension since Aeschylus’ Oresteia in fifth century Athens: to give it vitality and depth needs more careful attention than it receives here). A ‘prehistoric heron’ is mentioned in song at several points – and during an unedifying ensemble dance in the style of a heron, or possibly a chicken – but its symbolic importance is not explained.

The tragedy of Aitkenhead is lost in a generic and poorly structure example of devised theatre in a cabaret format, purportedly inspired by Brecht and Weill but lacking their skills with language, music and ability to connect with the audience while making an explicit point. There’s an attempt to suggest that Aitkenhead’s fate reflects the deaths of the cartoonists in the Paris Massacre (I am Thomas, Je Suis Charlie) and some relationship between blasphemy and The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, but this is lost beneath musical numbers that have the melodic charm of Coldplay.

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh 23 Mar–9 Apr 2016.

I am Thomas

Co-production with Told by an Idiot and National Theatre of Scotland. Directed by Paul Hunter.

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