Review by Sam Waite
A household name despite no true identity ever being discovered, Jack the Ripper’s murderous escapades fascinate crowds to this day – indeed, a booming industry has been created around tours of his purported crimes. For Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch’s Halloween offering, playwright Sadie Hasler openly questions why the killer is the one so well-remembered, rather than the oft-maligned women – in this way, Killing Jack’s title is not a call to revenge, but a statement of ending an almost reverent attitude towards an unnamed monster.
Killing Jack opens on a Halloween night out, where Maz and Jules head out in costume to celebrate the former’s 25th birthday. En route to the pub they run afoul of Christopher, nearly gatecrashing his Jack the Ripper walking tour – when Jules next sees the tour group, she screams for Christopher to call an ambulance as she has returned from the bar to find Maz dead in the back alley. Observing this, sickened by the tour and heartbroken for Jules, a quartet of slain women watch over a scene they can do little to impact.
It doesn't feel like much of a spoiler to reveal that this ragtag group of ghosts find themselves tangible and visible, or that they befriend the shaken, justice-bent Jules. There is, undeniably, a hokeyness to some of the interactions between centuries – quick jokes about being unaware of modern inventions or the current value of the British Pound can be funny, but they do make one question why Jules doesn't find these women more odd. Taken for what it is, Hasler’s script does a fine job of asking that pivotal question, why we seem to almost celebrate the killer while disregarding the victims, and strikes a careful, mostly-successful balance between comic notes and the story’s inherent, ever-present sense of sadness.
The indeed troupe – Anne Odeke, Jessica Johnson, Rebecca Wheatley, Gemma Salter and Hanna Khogali – work beautifully as an ensemble, convincing as distinct personalities brought together through circumstance. Each also plays other roles within the play. Most pivotally Khogali plays the eerily silent Mary Jane after beginning the show as the ill-fated Maz, admittedly a confusing transition but an ultimately rewarding one when Mary Jane comes fully into her own as a character towards the finale. Bouncing off one another and sharing the spotlight, none of the group stands out as a better or more important performer, which is very much the point.
The only male-presenting performer on stage. Charlie Buckland plays your guide Christopher with the expected self-importance and misguided sense of purpose. Buckland does well with the character, but the role itself has little to work with as Christopher is simply there to learn a lesson and become magically better in his handling of history. The most important character, and easily the strongest individual performer, Jules is brought to life by a plucky Caitlin Scott. When events seem ludicrous without context, Scott sells them with such utter conviction that even if Jules were chasing complete dead-ends, her drive to find the truth would still resonate.
Caroline Leslie’s direction seems slightly aimless in the opening scenes, becoming noticeable sharper and more tightened as the first act progresses. Seemingly unsure of how to use Dora Schweitzer’s multi-levelled construction zone of a set for the initial sequence, Leslie later manages the staging skilfully with actors’ movements immediately clarifying the location being portrayed, and the lighting cues from Stephen Pemble bringing a sense of the supernatural and the intensely dramatic to the proceedings. This lighting design, in which doorways are framed in light and the ghosts seen only in silhouette until brought into the mortal plain, is used exceptionally well to distinguish the two plains of existence and to clarify their initial separation.
There is likely a want for distinction between those alive and those passed in the inclusion of sung interludes. Musical numbers are performed exclusively by the ensemble of murdered women, and while this becomes clear soon enough and their voices are strong and emotive, I found myself increasingly confused by the inclusion of song in what was, for the most part, a tragic, distinctly non-musical piece of storytelling. This was also an area where pacing proved to be an issue, with the first act moving by at a steady pace but feeling significantly longer than the second, which was already significantly shorter but seemed to fly by with how much resolution needed to be found and how little time was allotted to the revelations and discoveries.
An imperfect but mostly charming affair, Killing Jack was a clear crowd-pleaser on press night and raises the undeniably important question of why history is so happy to write off slain women, and why the industry around Jack the Ripper’s killings continues to thrive while ignoring their stories. Thanks to a strong, fully dimensional performance from Caitlin Scott, the show manages to sidestep most of its major faults, and proves to be a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre.
Killing Jack plays at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until November 11th
For tjckets and information visit https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whatson/killing-jack/
Photos by Mark Sepple