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The Roses of Whitechapel, reviewed by Mark Campbell

PUBLISHED: 17:03 08 November 2010

The cast of The Roses of Whitechapel

The cast of The Roses of Whitechapel

Archant

Following the stories of Jack the Ripper’s five victims makes a refreshing change from asking who the Whitechapel Murderer was

The Roses of Whitechapel is an expanded and rewritten version of the more luridly titled Proper Red Stuff, first performed at the Brockley Jack in 2000.

The original title is a quotation from Jack the Ripper’s famous letter to the police, in which he describes bottling a victim’s blood to use as ink.

Jonathan Kaufman and Martin Stiff’s new production should perhaps have kept the title unchanged, for The Roses of Whitechapel is really too lyrical an appellation for this very unsubtle play.

Directed by Juliette Grassby at the Greenwich Playhouse last week, the co-writers had concentrated on an unusual angle — the lives (and deaths) of the five victims, rather than the Ripper. This way we get five stories for the price of one, with the complex question of who the Ripper is left unanswered and largely irrelevant.

It’s an interesting idea, and makes a change from the run-of-the-mill ‘Who is Jack the Ripper?’ shtick.

But strangely, despite the full-bodied performances of the actresses cast as the Whitechapel prostitutes, the writers didn’t seem to have the courage of their own convictions.

The play would have worked better had the Ripper been a shadowy figure in the background, vividly described by the girls but never actually seen. Instead we have Keith Chanter prowling the tiny Playhouse floor like a cadaverous Boris Karloff. He is chilling, yes, but in a stock Hammer Horror way. Much more menacing to have restricted Jack to the audience’s imaginations.

The evening is certainly strong enough without him. Laoisha O’Callaghan is Mary Jane Kelly, a raucous Irish streetwalker prone to throwing up, crying and shagging with equal intensity. Annie Aldington, as Annie Chapman, makes a grand entrance, clutching her groin and groaning of “fire” down below.

And it’s not just the drama that’s strong, it’s the accents too: as well as the expected Cockney vowel mangling, we have Rebecca Livermore’s Black Country, Sara Mason’s Glaswegian and Samantha Smith’s singsong Swedish to add variety to the mix.

The earthy humour of these Victorian streetwalkers is contrasted with the grimness of their brutal murders (which are described in graphic detail). Death does not silence them either, with each woman continuing in their role from beyond the grave, adding poignancy — and more than a touch of morbid surrealism — to their deaths.

The current production at the Greenwich Playhouse is Dracula by Bram Stoker, adapted by Liz Lochhead, until December 5. Tickets: 020 8858 9256.


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