Friday, 22 September 2017

Review Rebel Angel

Rebel Angel
By Angus Graham-Campbell

Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man

It's a tale of medical students as young bucks, body snatchers, crude amputations and surgeons, career choices, money lending, literary men and - oh yes - lines of exquisite poetry.

Writer and director Angus Graham-Campbell has reworked for the stage  his 1995 radio play with a quick-witted,  intricate account of poet John Keats (Jonny P Taylor) at a crossroads in his life.

Keats trained as a surgeon apothecary in the early 19th century when he caroused with fellow students, but also fell among literary men and then famously wrote his verse.

Rebel Angel skilfully manages to steer clear of hagiography, with some gently inserted barbs on Keats's infatuation with literary circles and even, heavens above, theatre.  The obstacles set up by his purse-string holding guardian may on first blush be the stifling of literary genius, yet finally seem like a preparation for life and literary battles.

The audience sits within the confines of the horseshoe-shaped Old Operating Theatre in the attic of St Thomas's Church and is flung into the story. Watchful Keats holds down a young boy (Theo Peters who shares the role with Ben Holborrow), soothing the youngster as he assists the master surgeon (Peter Broad) cutting off his crushed leg with unintended disastrous results.

The play turns into a thought-provoking piece that doesn't follow all the expected routes into the life of the young poet, sometimes subtly jumping out of its 19th century framework with a glimpse of life now.

The immediate denial of blame would be familiar, dare TLT say it, to some modern day insured surgeons and the General Medical Council. However there's a laconic wit in the pithy exchanges and dramatic structure, allowing the audience, without detailed knowledge, to become engrossed in the atmosphere and mood shifts.

The raucous, easy manner of the would be surgeons in their embroidered waistcoats is captured by Tom Palmer, Max Marcq and Fred Fergus.

The young Keats's attitude towards the women in his life is ingeniously not always portrayed directly but through a juxtaposition of clearly defined Dickensian-like female characters (all played by Polly Edsell), ranging from the sentimental to the vaguely satirical.

This is a compelling pageant of the both underlying savagery and tenderness of young men learning how to manoeuvre in life to find their métier. Meanwhile the older heads, for better or for worse and for their own purposes, seem to have a grasp of the younger generation's psychology, if not a total control of their destiny.

The styling of the characters and costumes feel authentic and there is superb nuanced work from lighting designer Matthew Evered, as well as well-pitched sound from Matt Fischel.

Occasionally the doubling of actors leads to a mild confusion but this is usually quickly cleared up in a line swiftly identifying the character. It may even be deliberate with the medical and literary worlds shadowing each other although it does feel a bit clunky.

There are a few lacks besides this. The audience, for example, could do with knowing a little more, in a succinct way, about the money lending background. TLT needed to look it up and it gave added pith to the Latin inscription on the theatre's wall - "Miseratione non mercede", "For compassion, not money" .

Folks may also want to bring a cushion to sit on rather than remain on the hard wooden planks of the viewing ledges where apprentice surgeons once stood!

TLT enjoyed the show, although she did have an argument with the narrow spiral staircase on the way up! 😥😉 The Old Operating Theatre itself with its medical exhibits is a fascinating venue and the play was well worth the effort.

It turns out the playwright and director Graham-Campbell also teaches and cares for the welfare of public school students. TLT feels knowing this gives an added dimension to Rebel Angel's Keats and his circle. Altogether this neatly embroidered bildungsroman of a play gets a TLT amber/green light.

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