In 2010, a young American student and an old British academic take an interest in the life of the Romantic poet Chatterton, and specifically the circumstances of his relationship with Horace Walpole, his death and Wallis’ famous painting of it. Soon, the present and the past interlink in a half-baked, homoerotic kind of way. It’s an interesting idea that is full of potential but just misses its target in this production.
As always when a show flops, the reviewer is faced with the conundrum of whether to blame the script or the acting; in this case doubt must fall upon both. The main problem was Chatterton himself- both the character and the actor who played him- and this is a big problem as the title might suggest. He is supposed to be ‘young, precocious and attention-seeking’. Well, he was young. Other than that he lacked both charisma and dignity. He did not attract our sympathies as a sweet, naïve young man, nor did he win our respect as a talented but struggling poet, nor did he even amuse us as a charismatic scallywag of the eighteenth century. He is bland and obnoxious. He calls out lines like ‘The muse is upon me!’ both without passion, and without even a touch of irony.
Scenes were reminiscent of a bad period drama, or of a farce when various characters turned and spoke directly to the audience. However, it has been described on the Fringe website as a ‘thrilling new comedy’, which is perplexing. The writing is certainly not moving enough be taken seriously, but it is not witty enough to be comic. The dialogue is rather, plain - and thoroughly clichéd. On his website Tim Norton calls himself an ‘actor, improviser, singer, director and producer’. After seeing ‘The Death of Chatterton’, it comes as no surprise that ‘playwright’ is not included in this list.
On top of this, the men often droned and the women whined in a way that was more annoying than funny. The music played in scene changes was taken from Chatterton’s time, from our time, and from every time in between, including a few jazz numbers which were perhaps fun but totally irrelevant.
What was professional about the production was its size and its aesthetics. It flaunted a cast of thirty-seven with about two or three different and extravagant costumes for each member. Scene changes were handled expertly, by use of screens concealing each part of the stage in turn. While the left side was being used, the right side was being decorated and set up. One of the settings was the bedroom that Chatterton died in, and the scene from Wallis’ painting is recreated almost exactly.
One of the later scenes consists of the academic going into a big spiel about all that is wrong and has ever been wrong with art. Well. There couldn’t have been a better piece of evidence than this play and this production to back up his theory. Thomas Chatterton is probably turning in his grave.