Jack the Ripper is possibly one of the most enduring of morbid infamies. Five brutal murders and the fact he was never identified or caught, has managed to hold the fascination of centuries of generations. But whilst much is talked and debated about the murderous man himself, little is ever said about his victims.
Sonnie Beckett and Joe Morrow’s new musical sets to change this, looking beyond the mere names and occupation of Jack’s women, prising into the tragic back-stories of these five fated ladies. However, despite a worthy and interesting premise, there are issues that stop the show from being great, which is a shame because even if it’s not tremendously slick there is a definite spark of genuine inspiration here.
The main issue is the music. Whilst Beckett and Morrow manage to write a score with a great sense of variety and flair, the numbers are a little unrefined. Melodies and musical structure will often meander a bit making the songs feel hollow, never quite giving enough for the audience to sink their teeth into. Couple this with some rhyming schemes that are a little obvious and simplistic, and the music falls short of the mark more often than not.
But there are, however, a few good pieces that really illustrate that there is promise in the duo’s composing abilities. These include a rather chilling opening number, a beguilingly mournful folk tune, and Annie Chapman’s raucous burlesque of a ballad. Bolstering the score is also some very innovative use of scissors, whetting knives, and luggage as a rhythm and percussion section to accompany the single piano that provides the music, which in itself carries a lot of charisma.
The other things that let show down are smaller details that have a large impact. Hannah Kaye’s direction is very unsympathetic to the new configuration of the theatre. If you happen to have gotten a seat to close to the back wall of the stage area, or in one of the back rows, its impossible to see the heavy amount of action very central to the space and on the floor. It’s a shame, because you get the sense that if you could actually see what was going on it would indeed look quite impressive. Kaye is clearly a talented director and this is demonstrated in some frantically choreographed chorus numbers that add a sharp sense of the twisted ripe for the timbre of the tale, and the bleak tenderness she gives the women’s life stories. But she just needs to have had more thought about the dimensions and sight lines of the venue, as, unless you’re sat in a prime position, you can only imagine what’s happening, which doesn’t have quite the same effect.
Also, Jack the Ripper’s “mask” consisted of actor Peter-Lee Harper wearing some black tights over his head, which feels more silly than sinister, dissipating any tense build-up the production had been working towards.
But there is a great cast behind the production, and Beckett’s book is incredibly solid. All the women are strong actors and really manage to ply the depths of each of their characters. Especially notable was Gemma Brodrick as the drunk and downtrodden Polly Nicholas, and Emma Hook as the deranged Annie Chapman. Beckett also makes a wonderful juxtaposition of police coroners Thomas Bond and George Bagster Phillips (played by Morrow and Thomas Deplae respectively) revelling in the hideous details of the murders themselves, against the ghosts of the victims fleshing out their personal stories to build deep portraits of five real women.
Furthermore, the educated assumption Beckett makes of the identity of Jack, and the playing out of the unnerving indiscretions in the relationship he had with his own wife, is a really intriguing twist to what we already know about Jack.
It might not be totally ground-breaking in its execution, but it’s certainly a unique and interesting take on London’s most gruesome of histories. Although it doesn’t quite gleam like it wants to, it’s certainly worth your time as it’s brimming with potential and is none the less a provocative and entertaining evening.
RIP plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, on Sundays and Mondays until 21 July 2013. Tickets are £20.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.