News Column

Silk purse made out of Jack the ripper musical

September 5, 2013


The life of a Wells Journal reporter can be a varied one. One minute you're discussing a spate of vandalism with a police inspector the next you're congratulating someone for raising an amazing sum of money for a good cause.

It's no wonder then that our staff can sometimes have obtuser musings.

A good example of this is the first few paragraphs of this review by Oliver Hulme of Jack the Ripper, performed by the Wells Little Theatre.

This review appeared in the Journal on September 25, 2008:

Musicals often throw up some curious themes.

"Jewish tailor attempts to marry off daughters while Cossacks burn down his village" or "Austrian close harmony singers escape the Nazis led by a novice nun."

It would have been fun to be a fly on the wall during the pitch for Jack the Ripper when it was written in 1974:

"So, Sol, what have Ron Pember and Denis De Marne come up with?"

"Jack the Ripper A Musical, Manny. It's about a Victorian serial killer who carves up prostitutes."

"Prostitutes, eh? All bodices and heaving bosoms?"

"Well it says in the script that one of them has no teeth, is riddled with venereal disease and drunk on gin at 16."

"Stuff that, we'll have bodices and heaving bosoms, Sol. What about the boys? Strapping young lads to keep the girls happy?"

"Well, Manny, there's a thug, a half wit, a drunk and a pimp."

"Strapping young lads it is then. What else?"

"Queen Victoria's in it..."

"Great stuff. The audiences love a bit of royalty."

"...but she's singing bawdy music hall songs and isn't wearing any drawers, Manny."

"Drawers, Schmawers, Sol, this is 1974. What else?"

"The Salvation Army's in it."

"Marvellous, some uplifting hymns and a bit of reverence."

"But their leader turns out to be the Ripper, Manny."

"And all the people rise up and he comes to a sticky end like Bill Sykes, right, Sol?"

"Actually, he guts the leading lady on a canal towpath."

"Fantastic, this is going to run and run..."

Given the unusual subject matter and the curious concept that requires the cast to play in two spaces - front of house being a Music Hall, while upstage is the real world of Victorian Whitechapel - required actors of considerable skill and verve, which the Little Theatre provided in spades.

Much of the show is bawdy music hall rather than musical, with some great set-piece song and dance - in fact the choreography and the singing was absolutely spot on, with not a foot or a note being put wrong.

The actors also had the challenging task of dealing with the comic tone, while adding the drama and pathos.

The production managed to deal with the dark nature of the horrific murders well - the revealing of one of the victims in a magician's cabinet being particularly effective.

Meanwhile, the daftness of Queen Victoria's appearances and the quartet of badly dragged up policemen were a riot, and the menace of the pimp Dan Mendoza and his cohorts and the struggle to survive of the tarts with a heart that made up the majority of the talented cast was well played.

The songs themselves were catchy, especially the affecting Goodbye Day and Step Across The River, and the show-stopping Ripper's Going To Get You.

The actors themselves all handled themselves well, with Anna Friend and Leanne Franklin shining as Whitechapel prostitutes Marie and Polly, as did Elspeth Salmon as a rude Queen Victoria.

Gerald Eyers was a twinkling and commanding Master of Ceremonies, Jonathan Sansam a splendidly-threatening Dan Mendoza and there was a well-paced and disturbing performance from Ken Edmonds as the Preacher, who turns out to be the Ripper.

The set was a splendidly creative piece of design - at one point a full-size sailing ship appeared upstage - and the lighting portrayed the foggy streets of old London town to perfection.

Jack the Ripper A Musical was an unpromising concept turned into a to silk purse.

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