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Jack: A Ripper's Tale
Published on Sunday, 17 July 2011

3 stars

Underground Venues - Pauper's Pit
13, 15 Jul, 7:30pm-8:45pm; 14, 17 Jul, 10:30pm-11:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

In a sense, the title’s completely wrong: this play isn’t about Jack the Ripper, but the Whitechapel prostitutes he terrorised and murdered.  There’s an awful lot of very clever imagery in the telling of the tale – and a refreshing hint of old-style social zeal, giving voice to the downtrodden women who became Jack’s prey.  But sadly, despite effective acting and slick execution, it doesn’t quite come together.

Both script and cast do a fine job of capturing the alien morality of Victorian London, where the women speak openly of “earning their doss” (nightly rent) and the clients, more often than not, take their pleasure in a quiet side-street.  The frankness of the prostitutes’ language is no doubt realistic, but occasionally I wondered whether it was just there to shock: the real depravity doesn’t lie in the physical detail, but the twisted and exploitative economy which surrounds it.

The occasional crudeness felt clumsy because, in the main, this is a very stylish production.  Costumes are simple but well-thought-out, allowing the actors to switch – entirely credibly – from a shabby low-life to an elegant lady.  In an arresting trick I’ve never seen before, scene changes see one actor position the others like mannequins, lending interest to the transition and helping maintain the mood.  There’s an atmospheric soundscape, with creepy music and portentous whispering, and an effective scene where the actors move up into the audience to share some of the more grisly details of Jack’s crimes.

Unfortunately, to my mind, all these intelligent concepts added up to less than the sum of their parts.  Sometimes they actively clashed – for example, the narrative was told both by a forensic lecturer in a lab coat and by an incongruous radio-style voice-over, reducing the impact of either of them.  More often, though, the gimmicks just felt under-used, for the simple reason that there wasn’t time to finish everything they started.  The play tries to be many things – tense thriller, bawdy romp, analytical history, social commentary – and spreads itself too thinly to achieve any of them.

If it were down to me to choose, I’d go for the thriller.  The murders themselves are particularly well-portrayed; each is evoked in a different way, all of them spine-tingling and filled with portent more than gore.  One scene, which sees a woman lost amidst a maze of moving archways, epitomised the tight suspense I’d have loved to experience throughout.  So, there’s clearly huge potential in Different Device Theatre, and indeed in this very production – it’s just a tale where less would mean more.

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