1888

Music, book and lyrics by Garry Ware
Silhouette Theatre Productions
An Okai Collier Company Production Union Theatre, Southwark
(2011)

1888 production photo

An infamous serial killer spreading fear from Whitechapel to Hoxton. Oh dear, not another Jack the Ripper story. Quite apart from films and TV plays and documentaries, we've had our share our stage versions lately, including another musical. I'm glad to say that this new musical, 1888, is different. The Ripper is part of the story but he is not its central interest and this is neither a 'whodunnit' nor the sex and violence piece the subject might suggest.

1888 draws on other topical contemporary material and among the characters we meet are upper class feminist reformer Josephine Butler, running her campaign for the better welfare of prostitutes, General Booth and the Salvation Army, star actor and theatrical producer Henry Mansfield, currently performing his version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Lyceum, as well as a government minister and the metropolitan police chief under pressure to track down the man who the newspapers began to call 'the Ripper.' The main characters, however, are two pairs of young lovers: prostitute Mary Kelly and Meriweather Sim, a handsome Salvation Army new recruit on a reforming mission (sort of Guys and Dolls but in reverse) and Detective Constable John Beck, assigned to the Ripper case, and Rosie Walker, a housemaid friend of Mary's.

The action opens in the music room of a Brick Lane pub and some rousing music hall numbers and many of the new songs have the same flavour, though in the second act, when things get much darker, a more modern, sometimes dissonant element enters. A brief mortuary scene with a sheet-covered mutilated cadaver introduces the Whitehall murders but things at first are joyful.

Gemma Salter and Stephen Lloyd make an excellent pairing as Mary and John with a delightful duet "May be love will catch us" confirming that it already has while the contrast between Vlach Ashton's innocent Meriweather and Stephanie Hampton's Mary makes them almost more engaging as they sing out their differences in "Chalk and cheese".

Impresario Mansfield is looking for "an undiscovered jewel" to feature in his Stevenson adaptation and finds her in Mary. With two pantos and a musical at Stratford East behind her, Gemma Salter is not exactly undiscovered but this relative newcomer, who left drama school only three years ago, gives a performance of which she can be proud. It was Stephanie Hampton, however, who moved me most with her solo "Someone I once knew" (of course if you recognize the name Mary Kelly you will know what is in store for her) while Matthew Ibbotson as East-End cobbler Jack Pizer, arrested as a Ripper suspect, shows us a confident heavyweight turning to jelly in "I'm not to blame".

The excellent band is masked by a Pugin-gothic panel and a square neo-gothic arch frames the stage with overtones of the Palace of Westminster but, despite a Suffrage song and a rather satirical picture of the governing classes, this is not really a political piece, though it does serve up a reminder of the way that the Whitechapel murders helped fuel the demand for political and social changes, and there is a bitter edge to the rollicking "Eight little whores", an acidity that does a little to counterbalance the rather knees-up presentation of the East End.

I saw a first preview when it still needed a little tweaking from directors Simon James Collier and Omar K. Okai. Not everyone was yet comfortable in their roles or with Okai's energetic choreography in minimal space but it was already packed with vitality and if more of them can put as much vocal energy into the songs as they do into the dance steps, it should lift off.

"1888" runs at the Union Theatre until 2nd July 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton