A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!



Silhouette Theatre Company presents




Photo by Michael Brydon


Book and lyrics by Gerry Ware


Directed by Omar F. Okai and Simon James Collier


Union Theatre


 7 June – 2 July 2011


1888 is a show that asks too much from its audience for what it gives. A cocktail of ensemble ditties, self-important arias and performance-within-the-performance pub shanties, this musical offering's potency lacks a balancing emotional counterpart. But such frivolity could be excused in the name of entertainment if the show toed dramaturgical convention; as it happens, relationships fail to flourish or decay and instead stagnate to the point of ignominy, leaving a vacuum that not even the well-composed score can fill.

From the opening, 1888 lays its goods bare: all the actors parade the stage with dance and song as the architectural and colourful set announces a full-bodied and multi-sensory production. The bawdy, lace-ridden dancers shimmer over the East-End drunks as the two 'saviour-cum-feckless' male protagonists – DC John Beck and the Salvation Army's Merriweather Sim – attempt to show a lurid contrast to the 'slum'. But there's a tension missing somewhere, the classes feel too-quickly comfortable with each other to invoke the intended sense of chalk-and-cheese juxtaposition – as one little number tweely spells out for us. There's just too much going on, so that by the time the main 'event' – Jack the Ripper – joins the production we've lost any feelings we may have had for the characters. Instead, the girls are picked off uniformly and without great drama, making the second half of the piece feel rushed and under-confident. For as much as you try to take this light-hearted musical production for what it is – and there are moments of cabaret hilarity, irksome theatrical barriers deny the relaxation needed to do so.

The real shame is that the production fails to make use of some clearly burgeoning talent. Gemma Salter felt capable of more than what she was given as the almost-heroine Rosie Walker. Her operatic soprano revealed cultivated vocal talent, while her saucy smirks matched her feline swagger to create a most charming tart-with-a-heart-of-gold. Elsewhere, the most impressive theatrical achievement were the opposing dual roles of the actors - Vlach Aston's feeble and spiritually troubled Merriweather cleverly off-played his other duty as the emotionally unfettered Detective Inspector Abberline, while Steph Parry and Matthew Ibbotson’s roles in the upper-class Fozzard family illuminate the inaccuracy of judging class and guilt via physical appearance by showing the actors in the contrasting capacities of noble female rights activist and immigrant Jew respectively.

The music itself is free, festive and foot-tapping, with Pippa Cleary’s direction bringing out the best in the sharp and frisky drummer Janette Williams, whose sense of tempo injected some much needed dramatic tension. The only disappointing thing about the music is its brevity; by squeezing twenty-five songs into a two-hour show the music never has the chance to stretch its wings. Once immersed within a song and pocket of music, there’s a delicate charm that deserves mention and praise, not least the absurd and frisky ‘Eight Little Whores’, but as a unit the songs feel more like charity shop stock than a curator’s considered selection.

The design of the piece is both awkward and ambitious. Limited by sight-blocking pillars, the seats jut out further from the stage than the director would have liked, resulting in half the audience having to crane their necks to see downstage action. This is partly due to the debilitating proscenium arch that aggressively dissects upstage from down, and one questions whether the artistic benefits of such a promontory are worth the distraction it causes. Moreover, Charlie Lucas’s lighting is of such quality – especially the sharply executed (!) murder scene where blue lights, paired with Okai’s physical direction, create a clever shift in setting between inside the pub and out – that much of the staging seems irrelevant.

The frustrating thing about 1888 is the amount of un-sifted gold it contains. From the acting to the music, to elements of the direction and sheer ambition of the production as a whole, the play has exquisite ingredients in imbalanced quantities. It is this clash which means that neither the attempts to discuss the shifting responses to London’s East-End and attitudes towards women, nor the joy of musical frivolity can fully succeed.
Union Theatre
204 Union Street
London SE1 0LX
Tuesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 3.30pm
Tickets: 15.50/12.50



Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved