Told By An Idiot, National Theatre of Scotland and Edinburgh’s Lyceum team up to resurrect in boisterous style the timely tale of Thomas Aikenhead (clue: he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy); the young Edinburgh loudmouth who fell foul of Presbyterian paranoia to become the last person in the UK to be executed for blasphemy.
Of course, Told By An Idiot are the theatrical equivalent of Monty Python going for a spin around Takeshi’s Castle, so this is no history play. I Am Thomas is pre-Enlightenment Edinburgh by way of Match of The Day, The Sex Pistols and Dolly the Sheep. Propelled by Simon Armitage’s witty lyrics and Ian Johnstone’s eclectic and affecting score, the action veers gleefully from snickering irreverence to Brechtian surrealism, safe in the hands of the energetic, up-for-anything cast. In moments it can seem to be trying a bit too hard to be wacky, making a mountain out of what is actually a dramatic molehill. But amongst this chaos, gorgeous moments of real poignancy bloom dark and unexpected, and truly catch the audience short.
Constantly playing, singing and performing, the multi-tasking cast are brilliant to watch. In a personal favourite touch, onstage ‘Thomas’ is everyone and everyone has the chance to play Thomas – the name emblazoned across their bright red t-shirts – at different moments in the young blasphemer’s tale. A stroke of subtle dramatic genius, this multi-casting reflects both the solidarity and vulnerability of a world that in January 2015 pronounced ‘we are all Charlie’ and also the flip-side. Yes, we could all be ‘Thomas’; but we also all have the potential to be the ruthless Lord Advocate James Stewart.
In a production as jam-packed as this, it’s inevitable that at times the clever scene-changes can become a little clumsy, although this can only improve as the run progresses. Frustratingly, it’s probably almost as inevitable that a play set in Scotland contains a host of Scotch stereotypes smothered in tartan. This edges on the self-defeating: I Am Thomas is almost pointedly not a Scottish tale – Je Suis Thomas, after all. Those expecting Charlie Hebdo will have to make do with a more Private Eye level of scabrous. Thomas’ tale could’ve been more effectual with sharper punchlines and more brutal caricatures. This isn’t really a story of free-speech verses religious extremism, it’s the story of a smartarse who rubbed too many people up the wrong way at the wrong moment. It’s to the company’s credit they don’t push for making Aikenhead the martyr to free-speech the set-up begs for.
More barmy than brutal, I Am Thomas is still a swaggering, cheekily inventive musical play that continues Told By An Idiot’s tradition of sending in the clowns to do the serious business. Punctures your conscience for days afterwards.
I am Thomas is on until 9th April 2016. Click here for tickets.