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Women of Whitechapel (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Women of Whitechapel

Society: OVO

Venue: Level 2, The Maltings Shopping Centre, St Albans AL1 3HL

Credits: By Melissa Amer. Directed by Anna Franklin. Produced by OVO.

Women of Whitechapel

2 star

There is definitely scope for a good play about the victims of Jack the Ripper through a modern feminist lens but I’m afraid Melissa Amer’s Women of Whitechapel is not it. And that’s a shame because  a great deal of hard work and love has clearly gone into this worthy but wooden show.

We start with five women – presumably in a pub because they’re clanking ale tankards although none of the settings are clear –  demonstrating how bonded they are before one of them disappears at the end of the scene with an offstage shriek. All have skimpily sketched back stories. Each of them is, to a greater or lesser extent, a prostitute.

There are two things in the play I really liked. First, there’s  a scene in the first half between Amer herself as Mary and the thoroughly nasty, abusive Joseph (Lyle Fulton). For a few minutes eyes flash and there’s  sense of real tension between Mary and her ex as he threatens and she stands up to him. Second,  Scott Henderson does well as the very young PC Chandler. His is the only character who really sees these women as human beings with a voice and his distressed reading aloud of the autopsy report on the first victim (a verbatim quote, apparently) is powerful.

Otherwise the women – their Whitechapel accents for the most part inconsistent and unconvincing – predictably disappear one by one, each death signalled by a lot of dimly lit stage business with veils and the sound of a police whistle. And talking of stage business I puzzled all the way home about why the production – in the round with audience on three sides –  distractingly features a door which is rolled continually from corner to corner. The lighting (designed by Michael Bird) is so dark and smoky that you can barely see what it’s meant to be, anyway.

I was troubled by the music too. From time to time – generally at the end of scenes – we get burst of something orchestral which unusually for me, I couldn’t identify. It feels intrusive and abrupt rather than atmospheric.

Yes, there are chilling moments when David Widdowson as the loathsome Inspector Abberline speaks lines which are hideously misogynistic – and hypocritical because we see at the beginning that he is an occasional user of these women’s services. On the whole though let’s just say that although this is a short play – One hour 40 minutes including interval it feels a lot longer.

I’m puzzled moreover about the economics of staging a play in a small regional venue with a cast of nine. I hope no one is short changed and, actually, it’s too big a cast artistically for the shape of the play. Some actors have very little to do.


First published by Sardines:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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