Sonnie Beckett’s new musical slashes expectations by not being the grim Victorian horror thriller its Jack-the-Ripper subject matter suggests, presenting instead a song cycle on forgotten victims and analysing history earnestly and truthfully. The result is original, impressive and destined for great things. At the King’s Head Theatre.
This is a country famed for its bloody Victoriana – we love a good murder, especially when it happens on the cobbled streets of the East End and alludes to the many, many theories about the identity of serial prostitute slasher Jack the Ripper. It’s almost inevitable, then, that British theatre is saturated with stories about “Saucy Jack”, and it’s with these thoughts bouncing around my noggin I settled down to watch Sonnie Beckett’s latest addition to the oeuvre. And I spent the next hour being pleasantly surprised.
Unexpectedly, Beckett’s new musical-cum-song cycle is less of a Sweeney Todd rip-off and more of a forensic examination – specifically, Doctors Bond (Joe Morrow) and Phillips (Thomas Deplae) presenting the victims of Jack the Ripper as they sing their stories. This old-school crime scene investigation not only introduces each victim within the context of their ghosts wanting their stories told, but also attempts to solve the most classic of murder mysteries – and even does so rather convincingly!
Taking cues from Sondheim’s Assassins, Beckett’s script gives voice to those who’ve long gone, and we’re given a varied and detailed description of how these young women became prostitutes: this may be the story of how they died, but it’s how they lived that forms the bulk of the plot. The stories gleaned are a sad collection of personal tragedies, delivering a strong feminist narrative of a time before emancipation and free labour, where selling their bodies was the only way these women could survive. Until they were murdered, that is.
However, instead of being unbearably tragic, giving these women a voice from beyond the grave switches between tragedy and crude comedy easily, making for a varied collection of songs and an enjoyable show. On the little stage (arranged for Our Town with the audience scattered all around), the five women and two doctors dance, sing, and contort with gusto, making the front row fear for their knees, but it’s this bold exuberance that makes the show so engaging.
The addition of an element of mystery (Beckett herself as Ellen Elliot and the masked Peter-Lee Harper as William Henry Bury) and a valiant attempt to solve the Ripper murders rounds the plot out nicely, even if Ripperites might see the relatively safe finger-pointing at Bury as a bit of a cop-out – with so many exciting conspiracy theories, why go for the safest one? However, the addition of the character of Jack prowling the stage (his first appearance, in particular, gave me quite the fright) is a winning one, as is the final strongly feminist unveiling and dressing up of the villain.
The idea and its execution is strong, although some small niggles stop RIP from being a perfect debut for this company and this writer. Director Hannah Kaye’s staging is inspired throughout, apart from an odd repeated manoeuvre all of the prostitutes make throughout some of the story-telling between songs. It looks like it’s meant to be representative of a cleaning ritual, but just looks like actors not being able to stand still. The songs are also competently written and well-sung, but nowhere near memorable enough – they’re missing something, although I’d be hard-pressed to put my finger on exactly what.
But otherwise, there’s a lot here to enjoy: great singing, strong performances, and an original take on a rather overtold story. Grindstone certainly have a lot going for them, as does Beckett, and I look forward to seeing what both do next.