Review: Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare (Theatre 20/Mirvish)

Toronto’s Theatre 20 presents its premiere production, Bloodless a new Canadian musical about a pair of enterprising serial killers

In February of last year, Theatre 20 debuted with a big splash. An artist-led, story driven company, Theatre 20 announced their intention of creating a company that would nurture the development of Canadian musical theatre talent and develop new Canadian musicals.

At the time of its launch, artistic director Adam Brazier proclaimed that Theatre 20 would be “the voice of the great unsung musicals” and that the company aimed to create work that was “evocative, memorable and challenging … theatre that asks big questions and explores big ideas.”

The fledgling company spent its first year finding its bearings, producing a series of fundraising concerts and workshops and is now ready to present its inaugural full production: Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare by Winnipeg playwright Joseph Aragon. It’s our first chance to see whether the company can live up to its bold vision.

A previous incarnation of Bloodless won the “Best of Fest” award at the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Remember, not so long ago another little “musical that could” called The Drowsy Chaperone came out of a Canadian Fringe Festival and made it all the way to the bright lights of Broadway … no pressure.

Set in 19th century Scotland, Bloodless is based on the outlandish real-life story of William Burke and William Hare, two Irish serial killers who established a business selling the cadavers of their victims to a medical school anatomy class.

With a set-up like that the show has the potential to be a complete riot. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s quite there yet.

I thought the show struggled to find its tone. A story that perverse and macabre needs to be told irreverently to be entertaining; the songs should be smart and witty, the laughs should land at a good rhythm and in that respect I don’t think it hit the mark.

I also think the director Adam Brazier played it too straight in the direction and musical staging and missed some of the potential humour in the situations presented in the script.

I don’t know if there is enough material to warrant a 2-act musical and there are parts of the middle section where the plot starts to stagnate. Some scenes don’t serve to move the plot forward and also aren’t entertaining enough to exist simply for their own sake. Editing down the scenes and tightening the script would help and I wonder if the show wouldn’t work better in a 90-minute intermissionless format.

I found Joseph Aragon’s score to be mostly utilitarian. Much of the show is written in a sung-through recitative “talk singing” style and I didn’t find the few solos and duets particularly memorable.

Granted, most of the lead performers have impressive credits listed in their program bios and deliver some great performances. Evan Buliung and Eddie Glen turn in respectable performances as Burke and Hare despite not being given much to work with; their characters aren’t particularly compelling or well-developed in the script.

Trish Lindström is a standout as Margaret Hare (Hare’s wife), the most conflicted conspirator in the plot and subsequently the most interesting character.

Carly Street also puts in a solid performance as Janet Brown, the “hooker with a heart of gold” who desperately searches for her friend (and implied lover) Mary Paterson who has fallen victim to Burke and Hare’s plot.

In the last few scenes the show finally hits its stride and the tone, pacing and musical staging are really compelling and high-energy. Unfortunately, it’s only at the very end that the show really comes together.

My show-going companion, site founder Megan Mooney, did enjoy the show more than I did. She thought it was fun and said it reminded her of Sweeney Todd.

Overall, I didn’t think Bloodless was the “evocative, memorable and challenging” show that Theatre 20 initially promised. It features some great performances but the show still needs some work before it’s ready for prime time.

Details:

  • Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare is playing from October 12 – 28, 2012 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto.
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $49 – $69. Special ticket prices are offered to students at $29 and limited Rush tickets will be released daily at $20. Groups of 10 or more receive a 20% discount.
  • Tickets are available in person at any Mirvish theatre box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at Mirvish.com.

Photo credit:

– Photo by Ashton Doudelet

2 thoughts on “Review: Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare (Theatre 20/Mirvish)”

  1. Yeah, Wayne and I had really different takes on this one, but we also come from very different places. Wayne is what I would call a musical theatre aficionado, whereas I am not super familiar with musical theatre, but am a fan of singing and dancing.

    Oh, and, I didn’t say it reminded me of Sweeney Todd, I said I thought it wanted to be the next Sweeney Todd, because, what wouldn’t want to be the next Sweeney Todd? 😉 (ooh, look, when I’m writing in comments I can use emoticons!)

    Anyway, yeah, my take on the piece was that the songs were hummable catchy (something that is important to me) and the piece was fun. I had a lovely time. I thought it was fun, but agree, it could have been more fun.

    Our discussion afterwards was that it either needed to be darker or more irreverent to hit the mark for us, and that without changing the script or music and just different direction choices it could be more irreverent, but to make it darker and more serious there would have to be changes to the script.

    My point about the songs and pieces that didn’t seem to move the story forward particularly was that if it were more focused on the fun, they wouldn’t need to. They can just be there as fun filler. But when it’s straddling the line between the two, everything needs to move the story forward.

    But yeah, ultimately, I really did enjoy it. I thought it was a lot of fun.

    I also thought there was an obscene amount of talent on that stage, I absolutely loved Sweeney Macarthur as the Narrator / Judge / Barkeep et al. Everyone else was great too, with the same standouts Wayne mentioned above.

    Well done everyone!

  2. I attended last night and am with Wayne on this one. The cast is so talented – I could listen to any of Buliung, Glen, Street, Lindstrom sing the phone book and be happy! But sometimes it felt like I may as well be listening to them sing the phone book, when song & story were not up to the standard of the performer. I got quite bored when people weren’t singing, didn’t particularly care about any of the characters nor the story, and wished it was much shorter. But still worth seeing for the great cast. Hope they have cheap tickets for the younger and poorer demographic that this will appeal to.

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