Wilton’s Music Hall, London (****)
Two facts coincide in Told by an Idiot’s I am Thomas. In 1697 Thomas Aikenhead, a young Edinburgh student was hanged, the last man in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. And in January last year, the slogan `je suis Charlie’ appeared on Twitter after the killing of twelve journalists at the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. `Je suis Charlie’ became the rallying cry for freedom of speech.
Amalgamating the two, Told by an Idiot’s director, Paul Hunter has created a vibrant, powerful musical satire recounting Aikenhead’s story which in its telling recalls some of the great ensembles that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular Scotland’s Communicado.
A style seen less often these days, it’s a theatre of swift vignettes, political thrust and live music (from Told by an Idiot associate, Iain Johnstone) that ranges through styles but never falters in its tunefulness.
You can tell, too, that Hunter has borrowed from Scotland’s rich tradition of music hall, rough hewn on occasion, but marvellously exuberant and mischievously cross-gendered. Half the story is told as if a Match of the Day analysis: `da ya think Thomas can come back from this’, Amanda Hadingue’s interviewer slyly says to Myra McFadyen’s footballing hero turned pundit, Ally (McCoist?) or Archie (Gemmill)’ after Aikenhead has been sentenced to death.
And there are other freedom of speech martyrs alluded to here in the two Margarets, drowned for their refusal to put temporal loyalty above their religion, all caught in the image of a heron, the lyrical cadences of Johnstone’s music, the lyrics of poet Simon Armitage and sung and played on piano, accordion and violin.
A marvellously versatile cast of actor-singers do the piece proud – all are `Thomas’ – but it is in the final moments that something extraordinary happens. Zimbabwean singer/musician John Pfumojena appears in red t-shirt with `I am Thomas’ emblazoned in French and launches his voice unique in its pitch and purity that soars as if a musical equivalent of a bird of paradise, embodying the human spirit transcendent.
Sometimes music can do that. Hit a spot. Hunter’s production cumulatively builds to that moment. It – and Pfumojena – are a glory.
I Am Thomas runs at Wilton’s Music Hall to April 30, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate April 2016 and slightly amended here
I Am ThomasA brutal comedy with songs
Presented by Told by an Idiot, National Theatre of Scotland and The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in association with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Iain Johnstone – Performing Musical Director
Director: Paul Hunter
Lyricist: Simon Armitage
Composer: Iain Johnstone
Designer: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Sound Designer: Adrienne Quartly
Assistant Director: Judith Williams
Movement Consultant: Sian Williams
Casting Director: Laura Donnelly