Edinburgh Fringe: The Theory of Justice: The Musical

HANNAH MIRSKY is left baffled by this unusual take on philosophical thought.

edinburgh hannah mirsky Musical rawl theory of justice

C main, Edinburgh, 31st July – 26th August, £10/8

You can imagine how it might have started. A group of bored philosophy students are struggling diligently with their revision, when one of them, just to pass the time, says ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to see a rap battle between Hobbes and Locke?’ ‘Yeah,’ another replies, ‘or a group of Utilitarians as a barbershop quartet!’. And on they go, matching philosophers and music styles. It’s a fun way to pass the time. But then – for reasons I can’t quite fathom – they went and turned it into a musical.

The straightforward enough premise is that the philosopher John Rawls, trying to write his Theory of Justice, has fallen through a time vortex after a student he fancies (and insists on calling Fairness) and now has a chance to converse with the political philosophers of old. So far, so baffling. Alex Wickens as Rawls is a likeable and engaging lead, and Rosalind Isaacs as Fairness, though unremarkable in terms of acting, makes up for it with an exceptionally beautiful voice. In fact, the singing throughout is very high quality – the barbershop Utilitarians become a particular highlight because of this – and the performances are enthusiastic and energetic, particularly David Wigley as a fairy godmother Kant.

There are, however, one too many rough edges. The movement is almost always out of time and awkward, and clumsy tech meant that microphones kept falling off and Isaacs’ face was left in darkness during a crucial solo. It wouldn’t have taken much to polish the production a little more, but no-one seems to have bothered. It’s not these lapses in professionalism, however, that were my main problem with this show. The production implies that it’s going to teach you about the history of political philosophy in an engaging and surprising way. In reality, it’s mostly a series of in-jokes. I can’t deny that I left knowing a little more about Rawls, but most other philosophers’ theories are recounted at lightning speed. Their songs would be near-impossible to follow unless you were already familiar with the ideas. There are even jokes about Rawls’ writing style, which surely amuse only the specific few who study him.

I suppose the creators of this musical would argue that only people who are interested in philosophy would come and see it anyway. It’s true that to an audience of philosophy fanatics there could hardly be a wittier and more surprising show. But I can’t help feeling it’s a little lazy to rely on such a particular kind of theatregoer, and certainly alienating to any layman in the audience. This show was written by three Oxford PPE students, probably just because they were bored with weekly essays. It seems to have been created to amuse themselves and their friends, and to have been released to a wider audience almost as a passing thought.