Resurrecting Bobby Awl

"Poor Fellow." It's the briefest description given of Robert Kirkwood, and a repeated refrain throughout artist Brian Catling's theatrical sharing of this young man's story: the rise and fall of "Bobby Awl", the most famous – infamous – "street idiot" in 19th century Edinburgh. That "fall", we're told, was total: even the memory of him was quickly overshadowed by the fate of fellow "street idiot" and friend, "Daft Jamie"—famously murdered for cash by Burke and Hare.

Quite deliberately, this retelling is made by women.

Working largely from a cheap chap book, published soon after Bobby Awl's death, and now held in Edinburgh City Libraries, Catling's first play is an exercise in sharing the basic facts of Bobby Awl's life and asking us to share those stories in order to bring the short-lived Robert Kirkwood (he was only 22 or 23 when he died after being kicked in the chest by a mule). To aid us in our own retellings, there's a real sense of fairytale: as a newborn, for example, he was kept warm in a large boot, hung over a smokey fire.

"Poor Fellow"? Quite deliberately, this retelling is made by women – Ruth Everett, Maisie Greenwood and Georgie Morrell – with some fun found in their relative abilities to "do" authentic-sounding Scottish accents. Significantly, we never, directly, see Bobby Awl on stage, apart from a cast of his skull made after his death: he's instead "present" through the creation of tableaux and the use of simple props, such as numerous cloth bags pulled inside and out. Catling's point is clear: stories are ultimately the only things that survive us after we die, especially once no one's left alive who actually remember us.

It definitely helps that the play is presented within the constrained atmosphere of an old anatomy lecture theatre (albeit one in a former veterinary training college); with the audience looking down on the performers, there's that real sense of us dissecting Bobby Awl's life and times. Yet that's also a risk: the problem with site specific works, after all, is that they lose what's worthwhile when performed anywhere else. And what’s the point in that?

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

Born in the nineteenth century and kept in the toe of a boot hung above a fire, Bobby Awl grew to become a feature of the Fleshmarket Steps. Famous in his time but wiped out of history by Messrs Burke and Hare, Bobby's life had passed into the void until his death mask was discovered by international artist and author of the Vorrh trilogy, B. Catling. Resurrected here using a blend of sculpture and performance, Bobby is back – a totem for all the crushed boys of Edinburgh who were transformed by poverty into violent survivors.

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