The Union Theatre is one of the most exciting spaces in London: a tiny, intimate venue with a reputation for creative, enjoyable and even award-winning shows (Sasha Regan’s all-male versions of Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe both originated at the Union). Unfortunately, such willingness to experiment inevitably means there will be the occasional miss among the many hits, and 1888, a musical about Jack the Ripper, is one of the theatre’s rare misfires.
Things start promisingly enough. David Shields’ impressive set – half music hall, half London street – is very effective and the audience feels as if they have walked straight into the heart of Victorian Whitechapel. The actors mingle among the audience as they take their seats, lounging against pillars, wandering and chattering behind you, emerging from the omnipresent London smog. The cast have an infectious energy and this rowdy, bawdy beginning promises much, but it’s not long before the production stumbles, hobbled by lacklustre, forgettable songs and a muddled and occasionally confusing script.
Staging a musical about a notorious murderer might be challenging, but it’s not an impossibility – Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd being, of course, the master template – and Jack the Ripper is a subject that continues to fascinate. But 1888 seems uncertain as to what it actually wants to be: is it a thriller about London’s first serial killer, a social commentary about the circumstances that forced women into prostitution, a satire about the media, a romance or a black comedy? So it ends up being an unsatisfying mishmash of all of these. There are moments of real suspense – a scene where one of the characters acts as decoy to try and draw out the killer only to find herself buffeted by the many men who inhabit London’s late night streets is particularly effective – but this tension is never properly maintained.
Director Omar F Okai (doing double duty as choreographer) makes some odd choices and struggles to steer the show in any one direction. Consequently it veers widely in tone – following a grisly murder scene with a cheery ditty about dead whores seems particularly misjudged. Gerry Ware’s songs can be clever, but they lack impact – it is the reworked music hall classics that you will remember once you’ve left, not the original music – and he isn’t helped by the fact that, on the whole, the cast are not particularly strong singers. The ensemble numbers are fine and performed with verve, but solo the performers struggle to make much of impression, even in a small space like the Union.
The performances are generally solid, with several of the cast ably taking on multiple roles. As lovers drawn into the dark world of the Ripper, Stephen Lloyd (Detective Constable Beck) and Gemma Salter (Rosie Walker) are engaging, and Stephanie Hampton’s doomed Mary Kelly gives a plucky performance that makes you care for her fate, while as her Salvation Army suitor Vlach Ashton is suitably torn between love and morality. Matthew Ibbotson and Steph Parry both do sterling double duty as both society couple and, respectively, murder suspect and social reformer, and Angeline Bell brings a cocky charm to her role as Coxy, although her singing lacks punch.
But while there are some several nice touches and the design is particularly atmospheric, the many disparate elements simply fail to cohere, the singing is tepid, and the production as a whole disappoints.