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Theatre Review: Blue Beard ***

Anna Burnside reviews a production with a lot to admire but doesn't hold 'together as a coherent piece of theatre'.

The Sisters of the Three Fs - that’s fearful, fucked and furious - are not your regular nuns. Their habits seem to have been sourced from the Toast catalogue. These have - because this is partly a feminist revenge fantasy - pockets.

The first blue beard we see is worn by Mother Superior, our narrator. She is tiny and furious and has to leaven a two-hour play about domestic violence with jokes about capoeira and Cath Kidston.

The first half of Emma Rice’s adaptation of the folk tale about a man who kills his wives and keeps their bodies in a locked room is baggy. It takes a long time to get to Blue Beard, a string-beany magician in a burgundy suit who gets rid of his knife act “assistant” by throwing a dagger at her head.

He then recruits a replacement, the dramatically-ironically named Lucky, from the audience.

From there on, those of us familiar with the story are on steadier ground. Anyone who hadn’t read Angela Carter’s take, The Bloody Chamber, or at least consulted Wikipedia on the bus, might have struggled. The worst of the horrors are kept locked in a cabinet or hidden beneath a trap door, leaving those without a working knowledge of the plot scratching their heads.

The dramatic arc is further confused by an interwoven second plot about a feisty young musician and her younger brother.

The loose ends are eventually tied up, Blue Beard is dispatched by Lucky’s sister and mother and the significance of the subplot revealed. For the denouement the theatrical language makes a handbrake turn from playful music hall with pop culture flourishes to the grim black and white CCTV footage of the true crime documentary.

There is a lot to admire in Blue Beard. The music is particularly strong, from clangy soundscapes and jazzy piano to big old song and dance numbers. All the cast apart from Katy Owen as Mother Superior play instruments and the whole show is a treat for the ears.

The performers are a powerful ensemble, changing costume and mood as the script demands. There are acrobatics and a significant disco ball. A lady is actually sawn in half.

And a woman is killed by her current or previous partner once every four days, so no one could argue that the subject matter is not relevant.

Yet none of these factors bring Blue Beard together as a coherent piece of theatre. The Sisters of the Three Fs are straight out of a student feminist review. After a room full of dead wives, the audience needed some kind of redemption but what we were offered felt glib.

The late Mrs Blue Beards deserve better.

Blue Beard performs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh until March 30, 2024 before continuing a UK tour.

Photo by Steve Tanner.

Tags: theatre

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