The gruesome murders of 19th century prostitutes don’t initially strike one as the perfect topic for a new musical - but the result is an energetic, if rough around the edges, romp through the alleys and public houses of London’s East End, following the unlucky citizens of Whitechapel as they’re terrorised by the anonymous Jack the Ripper.
1888 is a bawdy gambol with an excellently dark second act, enthusiastically undertaken by the cast, but sadly let down by an inconsistent book. Some of Gerry Ware’s songs are utter gems – the Ripper choruses and ensemble tunes are particularly stand-out – but others, often the solos, need much more polish.
The musical attempts to pack several narratives into a short space, leading to a couple of flat threads, a lack of empathy for the leads and some clunky lyrics. Brave is the writer who aims to reflect not only one of the greatest unsolved crimes in British history, but the hardship and squalor, the heady political landscape, journalistic ‘integrity’ and the ever-continuing class warfare of the 19th century. It’s a lot to pack in after all, and it leaves some sub-plots to surface in the songs like afterthoughts.
That Stephen Lloyd’s genteel Detective Constable could be a Ripper suspect is thrown into the mix late in the second act, for example, and therefore feels fairly unbelievable. The romance also, between Lloyd and Gemma Salter is valiantly attempted but has no real chance to progress, going from initial meeting to lovers tiffs within minutes. It’s just that bit too thin to stand as the pivotal romance.
The cast, though, do fantastic overall, with stand-out performances from Stephanie Hampton, Phineas Pett and Dudley Rogers. Their energy and enthusiasm is commendable. It isn’t difficult to see that 1888 has the potential to transfer to a bigger stage, with a bigger cast and would, after a little work, do so brilliantly.
That said, the Union Theatre offers something wonderfully intimate in its space and helps achieve a sense of community within the characters that the writing doesn’t always accomplish. Plus, all credit to the choreography and direction that the cast whirl around the stage and make excellent use of the space without high-kicking any audience members in the jaw. 1888 is worth a viewing to be sure – but expect a few bum notes to come your way.