Papal exhumation farce is a niche genre, and may in fact consist of a single play. This one, Cadaver Synod, by Edinburgh local and Fringe regular Ben Blow. The story goes that back in the 9th century, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of his predecessor Pope Formosus dug up and put on trial, in order to invalidate his papacy to benefit of the Queen of Italy. Complex if you study the history of it, but no matter – the whys, wherefores and papal politics are perhaps less important to this play than the comic potential in trying to get a nine-month old corpse out of the ground, restored and made presentable for the public without too much commotion.
In a sprawling cast by Fringe standards, Alastair William Duncan is the central pillar, as Pope Stephen himself. Part Peter Capaldi as Cardinal Richelieu, part Mark Heap as Robert Greene in Upstart Crow, he plots and connives, charms and rages, and generally makes sinister mischief. For the central character, and one that gets stronger as he goes, he’s actually underused. Instead, focus is drawn by two out-of-place undertakers, the Kaufmans (Chris Allen and Hillary Davies) who are hired to do the unpleasant deed.
This takes the play somewhere it doesn’t need to go. While it’s all cassocks and crosses, it has one particular feel. With the addition of these two Scots dressed in contemporary gear, it becomes something else, like finding two extras from Still Game in a Dave Allen sketch. That said, they do bicker entertainingly and there’s a good comic contrast between the bumbling duo and Duncan’s anxious Pope (and David Valdez Taylor as his put-upon assistant). Ben Blow himself and Jonathan Whiteside do their own double act as two proto-Swiss Guards, an excellent combo which seems more appropriate to time and place, while Andrea Linhova takes the role as the impassive and self-interested Queen.
Once our undertakers have done their bit, Formosus makes an appearance as a horrific-looking to-scale cadaver mannequin. The potential for bits to fall off or it to slump in the chair adds to the comedy, and the trial scene, with Whiteside as prosecutor, Taylor voicing Formosus, and Duncan looking on fretfully as Pope Stephen is the highlight. All doesn’t go to plan though and Formosus gets an after-life neither he nor Stephen were expecting…
All good fun then, and a genuinely weird bit of history to build a show around. More bells and smells and fewer funeral directors in dungarees might just have aided the ecclesiastical vibe.