The Victorian East End has been mythologized so often it’s almost become a fantasy world. A land that stretches from Whitechapel’s peasoupers to the murky alleys of Aldgate, home to the likes of Olivier Twist, Eliza Doolittle, and Sweeney Todd. Its cobbled streets bustle with orphans, peelers, chimney sweeps, whores, beggars and a sprinkling of homicidal maniacs.
Indeed, history’s most famous serial slasher casts a long shadow over those gloomy docks and gin saloons. Jack the Ripper! What a brilliant idea then, to turn it into a musical. In this production the gruesome legend of Jack’s murders is being re-enacted as a music hall melodrama. But boundaries blur, till the audience is not sure whether they are watching a play within a play or the real thing. Perhaps that’s not important. For two hours we follow the fortunes of these chirpy cockneys, the streetwalkers and thugs, the coppers and do-gooders. Not to mention a man with top hat and cloak, stalking the shadows. Young women fall victim to his knife, but their cruel fate is accompanied by a good old-fashioned knees-up.
Ron Pember’s score is, if not quite Lionel Bart, nonetheless catchy and instantly likeable. The cast are in fine voice and blast out the witty lyrics with gusto. In fact, the songs are the best part. The cast acquit themselves with honour. Kareena Sims (Marie Kelly), Chris Reed (Mendoza) and Frances Lowe (Montague Druitt) all give eye-catching performances.
Jason Wrightam, as the Chairman, holds the show together as a kind of MC, stepping into the audience to whip up some crowd participation, perhaps the most difficult job but one he does splendidly and the audience lapped it up.
The costumes were spot on and the stage design inspired. Perhaps more could have been made of the script. The storyline was slow to kick in and light on plot. It was not clear whom we were supposed to be rooting for. Some of the story elements, like the forged letter, seemed a tad underused.
Towards the end Jack emerges from darkness onto a deserted stage. This was a scene to send icy shivers down the spine. A few more scares like this would have gone down a treat.
Jack The Ripper runs at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 21 July 2012