A Burning Dance Through a Life

Image Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Image Tommy Ga-Ken Wan


15:00, 20:00

From: 4 Aug 2022

To: 10 Aug 2022

King’s Theatre
2 Leven Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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In recent publicity photos Alan Cumming has been looking rather ripped and toned. This extraordinarily physical one-man performance may go some way to explaining why he needed those highly-developed pecs.

The sound of heavy rain and deep bounding bass creates a spooky air of foreboding around the auditorium, even as the audience are finding their seats. Then, as the curtain lifts, the stage is flooded with a rush of vibrant back projections and booming music which sets the tone for a very contemporary performance.

The bard appears in a messianic pose, all tousled hair and gym-fit leotard. Then, amid flickering colours, he moves in time, skipping, twirling and dancing to a carefully choreographed routine. This dance-theatre approach is maintained for the entire show as Cumming speeds us through a life’s journey from ploughman to poet to exciseman and all points in between and beyond. The stage seems a tad empty at first, hosting only a writing desk and a bundle of rags, but as the performance progresses it becomes apparent that lighting, sound and video will supply much of the context while the stage becomes a dancefloor.

Strangely, since we’re in the company of a national bard, there’s no actual poetry in the show. Instead, using Burns’ own words (clipped from his mountain of letters), Cumming reveals a more textured and darker character than we’re used to seeing. The rakish scoundrel is here of course but alongside his naughty chat-up lines, rushes of lyrical beauty and occasional pomposity, there’s still a struggling farmhand brimming with anger, pain and terror of being pushed back into the jaws of poverty.

Although this is essentially Cumming’s show there’s a wealth of sparkling stagecraft to support his performance and keep all of our senses engaged. Anna Meredith’s music is plaintive and powerful, mixing scratchy fiddles with punchy modern beats, while choreographers Steven Hoggett and Vicki Manderson keep their subject animated and expressive as he veers from testy to frenzied, haunted to exalted. 

It’s not often we see stage techies take a curtain call but here it’s properly deserved. Their hidden hands are all over the show, creating ghostly floating images from bundles of rags, animated chairs and a quill which writes without being touched. It’s a novel use of illusions which tickles the audience and occasionally make us gasp.  

But ultimately this is Cumming’s stage. He dominates the space with a cheeky mix of poise, physicality and sparky humour. It may have been a risky venture to present and envelop our national poet within such brash contemporary techniques, but it pays off in spades.  Burn is not just an exploration of the bard’s hopes, dreams and disappointments, but a deep dive into the nature of creativity itself.

With thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review. After its Edinburgh run, ‘Burn’ continues at Perth Theatre, (20th August), His Majesty’s Theatre, (27th August), Theatre Royal, Glasgow, (1st and 3rd September) and Eden Court, Inverness, (10th September).

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