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Review of Rebel Angel at the Old Operating Theatre, London Bridge

John Keats (Jonny P Taylor)
John Keats (Jonny P Taylor)

The period costumes in Rebel Angel, which looks at the formative years of the short life of John Keats (Jonny P Taylor), are excellent, and if this reviewer had more knowledge of costume design, he might comment more extensively on the embroidery and the exquisite patterns. While there are some productions that could have benefited from another creative perspective on board, I am pleased to report that as both writer and director, Angus Graham-Campbell has done quite a splendid job in furnishing the audience with a compelling narrative, wonderfully acted at a steady and comfortable pace.

It’s not for everyone, of course, and the seating arrangements don’t exactly match those of, say, the Royal Court Theatre. That said, the environment of the Old Operating Theatre Museum is highly appropriate for a show of this nature, and going into the theatre proper felt like going back to 1815, when Keats began studying medicine. This is the sort of theatre that was used for surgical operations, rather than dramatic arts, and I thought it rather a touch of genius to have put in a scene that might feasibly have happened in this very operating theatre in the early nineteenth century. Back then, medical students would sometimes pass out while watching medical procedures. This production made it easy to see why.

Not entirely in strict chronological order, the story introduces us to Keats as a schoolboy (at the performance I attended, Theo Peters – the role is shared with Ben Holborow). In looking after his mother (Polly Edsell) after she contracted tuberculosis, much is revealed about his eager and ambitious nature. Elsewhere, Bill Lucas (Peter Broad), a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital (even today, a fully functioning medical facility within comfortable walking distance of the Old Operating Theatre Museum, as if this production at this location couldn’t be any more apt), demonstrates how things were done back then, both in terms of administering medical care and in dealing with being challenged by the younger Keats. Let’s just say that there are ways of speaking to people, a point further compounded by the relative civility and encouragement of schoolmaster Charles Cowden Clarke (Fred Fergus).

Keats’ guardian, a Mr Abbey (also Peter Broad) cautions against Keats pursuing a career in the arts, advice that has a remarkable amount of relevance now, though parents, guardians and carers these days are likelier to be more supportive of their dependants whatever their choice of profession, particularly if they possess Keats’ level of strength of will and determination. Tellingly, Keats completes his medical examinations, and presumably passes them, and “it’s something to fall back on if the poetry fails”.

Old Operating Theatre
Old Operating Theatre

There were, it seemed to me, more lines from the published works of Shakespeare than from the published works of Keats quoted in this production. At face value, given this is a play about Keats, that might seem a little odd. But extracts from The Merchant of Venice are used cleverly and effectively to advance the narrative of Rebel Angel. Oh, and it was highly Shakespearean indeed to have a boy playing a woman (Theo Peters as Portia).

The staging was simple and stripped back, ensuring a reliance on the script to establish scene settings more fully. The lighting (Matthew Evered) was first-rate. All things considered, this unconventional play in an unconventional setting about an unconventional person is a unique experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

‘REBEL ANGEL’ documents the short, extraordinary life of English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1820) who turned his back on a promising medical profession to become a writer.

Set in 1816 when George III was on the throne and Napoleon had just been defeated at Waterloo, ‘Rebel Angel’ is by playwright and Keats-Shelley expert, Angus Graham-Campbell and will be staged at Europe’s only surviving operating theatre: the Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garrett opposite Guy’s Hospital at London Bridge. The play will take place in the well of the old theatre where operations were performed while the audience will sit on the tiers originally occupied by the observing – and frequently fainting – medical students (image left: Old Operating Theatre)

‘Rebel Angel’ features key characters from John Keats’ life: from doctors, medical students and body snatchers to actors, writers, friends, family and inspiring individuals. The talented cast – most of whom play multiple characters – includes Jonny Taylor (left, as Keats), and Peter Broad (surgeon Bill ‘Butcher’ Lucas) both of whom recently performed in ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Minack in Cornwall; LAMDA graduate Fred Fergus (George Wilson MacKereth), Edinburgh Fringe star Tom Palmer (Frederick Tyrell, Keats’ roommate) and Central graduates Max Marcq and Polly Edsell. Scenes take place in the operating theatre, the Drury Lane Theatre, the Golden Lion pub, Keats’ digs and locations from Keats’ childhood. The play opens with the re-enactment of a pre-anaesthesia amputation…

John Keats, a medical student and poet – Jonny Taylor
Bill Lucas, a surgeon – Peter Broad
George Wilson MacKereth, a medical student – Fred Fergus
Frederick Tyrell, a medical student – Tom Palmer
Henry Stephens, a medical student – Max Marcq
Frances, John Keats’ mother – Polly Edsell

‘Rebel Angel’ is commissioned by The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association www.keats-shelley.co.uk and developed with support from the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London and Arts Council England

REBEL ANGEL: a fast-moving, intimate play about the life of the 19th-century apothecary-turned-English-Romantic-poet John Keats – written and directed by Angus Graham-Campbell

September 19th – October 7th
Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garrett, 9a St Thomas Street,
London SE1 9RY


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