Updated: Tuesday, 7th July 2020 @ 8:18am

'The parallel with Je suis Charlie can hardly be missed': I Am Thomas @ The Lowry

'The parallel with Je suis Charlie can hardly be missed': I Am Thomas @ The Lowry

| By Jos Weale

Acclaimed poet Simon Armitage pens lyrics for this music theatre piece that jars execution with comedy. And Dolly the cloned sheep.

I Am Thomas explores the true story of Thomas Aikenhead, a university student from Edinburgh who in 1697 became the last person to be executed for blasphemy in Britain.

Denying God’s existence in a pub one evening, he was reported and sentenced to hang.

The play works hard to highlight the nonsensical persecution of this young man, revolving around his last words: "It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek it as for hid treasure."

It’s a story that rings alarm bells with our contemporary times.

The ‘I am Thomas’ parallel with 'Je suis Charlie' can hardly be missed.

Throughout the play, the Thomas Aikenhead character is passed on from actor to actor an interesting concept with a resonant, all-too current message – though unfortunately it’s not seamless on stage.

Brechtian influences do not allow the audience to let go of Aikenhead’s story’s transgression into the modern day for one second.

Scrawls of ‘I am Thomas’ on clothing, hard-hitting statements on props and hangman imagery seared onto the staging in chalk slam down a blunt challenge to get brains working.

Simon Armitage, who was named Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford last year, collaborates with The National Theatre of Scotland, Told by an Idiot and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh to create this ‘brutal comedy with songs’.

As it turns out, Armitage’s lyrics provide the most poignant moments in a production that at times finds the sheer number of ideas and symbolism counteractive.

Roll up, a piano-based piece that follows a rollicking Book of Mormon-like opening number, brings the audience out towards the circumference of the self and the world in which we live, allowing us all to assume a renewed sense of wonder and intrigue to ‘search for the truth’ just like Aikenhead. 

The song makes echoing appearances throughout the play, pulling us out to the edge again just as we start to re-submerge into toe-tapping satire, making odd moments of delicious irreverence all the more amplified and farcical.

Although the music is cutting and beautiful, with some stunning vocal performances (notably John Pfumojena as the Heron), and there are certainly laughs to be had, dialogue is often cloudy.

Look out for the football pundit hecklers that raise the biggest laughs, although lines fall flat while straining for a Match of the Day gag that parallels with existentialism.

The narrative is intriguing.

Surrounded by staging that appears to merge the pulpit and the gallows, the small cast swing between the past and present to tell Aikenhead’s story – a shifting perspective that ensures that the play isn’t a lampoon on those with religious faith (at least not completely).

We see characters killed for upholding their faith, not unlike Aikenhead.

Expect pop culture references in abundance to accompany this double-sided coin of anarchy, from Never Mind the Bollocks, Dolly the Sheep and David Bowie to an inevitable but warmly welcomed snippet from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

It doesn’t always hit the mark, but when it gets it right this Told by and Idiot production has a strong message on freedom of speech and the right to that sense of wonder – and as such it’s worth a watch.

I Am Thomas runs at The Lowry Theatre, Salford, until March 5.

Image courtesy of Told by an Idiot, via YouTube, with thanks