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A Theory of Justice: the Musical!
Published on Friday, 16 August 2013
3

3 stars

C venues - C (venue website)
Musicals
31 Jul, 1-12, 14-26 Aug, 12:15pm-1:55pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

If you’re not a student of political philosophy, you’ve probably never heard of John Rawls. Don’t worry; I hadn’t, either. But I now know that he was a Harvard professor; that he wrote his magnum opus, A Theory Of Justice, in 1971; that it’s quite dull to read, but fairly well-regarded, and that it’s built on three key principles (creatively titled 1, 2a and 2b). I know all that as a result of watching this bizarre, brave, deranged, intelligent, creative and ever-so-slightly magnificent musical.

The plot, such as it is, runs as follows.  Currying the favour of a pretty young student (these are the 70’s, remember), Rawls sets out to develop his liberal-minded philosophy of justice, in the process triggering a battle with the malevolent dominatrix Ayn Rand.  But before he’s had a chance to put pen to paper, his paramour falls into a wormhole – trust me, it makes sense in context – and the pair are soon time-travelling through the ages, and across the world.  As Rawls gathers inspiration for his groundbreaking new theory, he meets philosophers ranging from Socrates (who’s a ventriloquist’s dummy) to Thomas Hobbes (who does some rap).

It’s all good fun, and though the emphasis is more on variety than on mastery of any one style, the score and performances largely hit the spot.  For all its whimsical plot, this show’s structured as a classic musical, complete with heart-lifting ensemble numbers and soulful solos.  (Rosalind Isaacs deserves particular mention for her moments in the spotlight.)  There’s a big satisfying finale, an audience clap-along led by a fairy godmother in drag, and a comedy bad guy who’s forever at Rawls’ heels.  There really is nothing not to like about any of this.

The problem, though, is that it’s essentially a series of in-jokes – and while I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of them, an equal number plainly passed me by.  This show doesn’t really attempt to educate anyone; it’s almost a celebration of its own obscurity, as though we’ve snuck into the philosophy department’s end-of-term revue.  And it’s an hour and forty minutes long!  In Fringe terms that’s practically War and Peace, and the central joke of making a musical out of something completely unexpected wasn’t enough to bear such a heavy weight.

So in summary: if you’re a philosophy grad, you’ll love this musical, and if (like me) you’re a curious amateur, then you’ll be entertained and intrigued.  But if you’re just attracted by the oddball title, you might find yourself rather bemused.  Despite such reservations, though, A Theory Of Justice is far more than just a joke: it’s a full-fledged musical, with a talented cast and a plot that made me care.  If there’s one place that shows like this should flourish, it’s the Edinburgh Fringe.  If it doesn’t, there ain’t no justice.

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