The Ripper's 5
Book and lyrics by Karlton Parris, music by Louisa Jay
Manchester-based company Skint have already presented a version of The Ripper's 5 at the Bleeker Street Theatre in New York in 2007 but have developed it with new songs and added scenes. It is a macabre invention that centres on Edgar, a (fictional) gay grandson of Queen Victoria, seeking the return from the dead of the five known victims of Jack the Ripper five years after their murders. Ostensibly he wants to use their evidence to identify the Ripper but something else is going on, though exactly what is pretty confusing.
The set is all a gothic red and black dominated by police photographs of the dead women, burning candles in a many-branched candlestick below them in the otherwise enveloping darkness with the performers sparely lit to maintain a haunted atmosphere.
The audience find someone, bare to the waist, who confusingly appears to be painting one of the photographs. The programme identifies this as artist Walter Sickert, who has sometimes been pointed at as a potential Ripper, and in an ill-articulated first number I caught the name of Inspector Abeline, the detective who was in charge of the Ripper case, though the programme calls the other character Jack - it would have helped if I could have known that from the song for much of the later action made me think the killer was actually Edgar himself. Presumably actual killer and suspected one were simply commenting on the failure to nail the murderer and hinting at some kind of cover-up.
Next we are presented with a widow in black. It is Queen Victoria herself with her daughter Princess Alice and a young man who brings news of her grandson. Then, suddenly at the audience's feet a pair of naked men are making love play on the ground, discretely girded by a flowing red velvet drape, though the high romantic image is somewhat ruined by a pair of socks. These are Edgar and his lover Xavier, a necromancer medium. From here on it becomes clearer what is going on. Edgar and a group of male friends join Xavier in calling up the murdered women However, rather than ask them questions to identify the Ripper, gay Edgar suddenly turns very hetero and straight sex rather than detection becomes his purpose, while the women sing of their poverty and individual arias before breaking into bickering between themselves.
Behind them at one point, obscured by the foreground action, Edgar's father is naked, being sponged down by his mother who also wields a knife, perhaps as some sort of ritual cleansing. Finally, when the women return to whatever world they came from, a deranged Edgar, in an explosive finale, declares that he has been made a 'servant of the Ripper'. Yes, it is confused and self-indulgent tosh but it is delivered with enormous conviction that got the thin Sunday afternoon house I caught it with very enthusiastic.
Karlton Parris's script is confused - or perhaps deliberately confusing - and his lyrics thin, though with strong rhymes and multiple repetitions of some lines, but Louisa Jay's music is melodic, often powerful and, though often following the same formulae, full of emotion. The strong-voiced company sing it with gusto with especially fine performances from Katherine Mount as Elizabeth Stride and Amy Forrest as Mary Kelly
If he had not been directing his own material, already knowing every word backwards, Parris might have given more attention to helping an audience understand it and ensured that key information was audible and not swamped by the accompaniment but he has cast well and brought out the best in his company and Wendy Jones has created lively choreography that adds great vitality to the show.
A little logic might have produced a better script - it would be a fascinating idea to put these women in the witness box, which is what he seems to start off intending but never actually gets around to. Instead we a melange of bright ideas that never really fit together and a kind of gothic graphic novel swamped with music - but Camden Town's Goths should love it and certainly it looks to be right down their street!
Run ends 18th October 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton