There’s a long tradition of the gentleman thief - not least in Edinburgh, the city of Deacon Brodie - so it probably seemed apt to bring to the Fringe an adaptation of Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency series of novels, in which a gentleman-thief eventually becomes a spy for the British Empire. However, by focusing on the character’s origins in Victorian London, and ending shy of even the first novel’s conclusion, this ends up being a somewhat unsatisfactory tale of duplicity and moral choices.
After he is horrendously injured by falling into a grinding machine during an attempt to outrun the police, a common thief known only as prisoner 493 is saved by the pioneering surgeon Doctor Robert Farcett. Although sentenced for two years in Pentonville Prison, the man who takes the name of Montmorency (the name on the bag with him when he was caught) is frequently showcased by Farcett at scientific conventions, and it’s during one of these events that he hears of London’s new sewer system.
Realising that the new sewers could serve as an ideal route in and out of people’s homes, Montmorency spends his time in prison wisely, learning to conduct himself like a gentleman under the tutelage of long-term prisoner Frank, aka Freakshow, thanks to his various disabilities. On his release, Montmorency begins to cultivate his two personas, with the Opera-attending gentleman’s lifestyle financially supported by the burglaries conducted under the guise of the latter. Frank, meantime, begins to collapse psychologically at the very thought of being released from the institutionalised lifestyle he has known largely from birth. Nor does he survive that long in the big wide world, becoming involved in one of Montmorency’s robberies and ending up being arrested for the accidental killing of the lady of the house — a conclusion that tests the morals of both Dr Farcett and Montmorency and, we are led to assume, finds them wanting.
Ignoring the somewhat abrupt and extremely unsatisfactory conclusion to the play, this production nevertheless includes several stand-out performances, not least Matthew Hopkinson’s muscular, yet subtle presence as Montmorency. Philip Dunster also gives real depth to the initially zealous, self-centred Dr Farcett. However, both are understandably outshone by James Blake-Butler as Frank, a man who — initially physically, later psychologically — has the most moving personal journey of all.