REVIEW: The Roses of Whitechapel at Theatre@41


Jenny Hall (she/her) reviews recent revival of haunting historical play

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Image by Jenny Hall

By Jenny Hall

In April, The Penny Magpie Theatre Company put their spin on The Roses of Whitechapel written by Jonathan Kaufman and Martin Stiff. The piece puts a spotlight on five women who became victims of Jack the Ripper and offers them a chance to tell their story. Through effective staging and emotive monologues, lesser-known information is uncovered about these women, and we delve into their lives before they were brutally murdered.

The minimalistic set transports us to London’s East End in 1888 and by listening to their friendly banter and bickering, we learn about the womens’ lives and hardships such as homelessness or resorting to prostitution in Whitechapel. The first half of the play was full of light-hearted chit chat and innuendos, inviting the audience to laugh along with these women making light of an incredibly bleak situation. In doing so, an oddly jovial atmosphere was created. After the interval the tone became a lot more sombre; monologues and graphic, yet factual retellings of the murders moved me greatly and illustrated the complete helplessness of the victims. One technique which really stood out was that after each woman was murdered, she became part of a congregation from beyond the grave, watching powerless from the side of the stage as the next victim fell into the same trap.

Jack the Ripper himself was portrayed brilliantly by Alexander King, and through his matter-of-fact tone and slow, steady pacing around the stage, the audience felt a chill every time he appeared. I felt that he was given just the right amount of time on stage: evidently the focus of the play is on the women who were his victims, women whose names are known and whose photographed corpses are in archives, whilst the identity of the man behind it all remains speculation. But the presence of the Ripper is necessary for the storytelling of the play, without overshadowing the victim’s perspectives. The lighting was also a key part, and appearing on a balcony above the women, King’s silhouette was outlined, adding to the mystery and elusiveness of this notorious serial killer.

At various points in the play the stage became immersed in blue lighting and the same actresses who played the murdered women spoke as the police, highlighting the shameful fact that not nearly enough was done by the authorities to help these destitute women in incredibly dangerous situations, who didn’t exist in society until they ceased to exist.

The play reminds us of the importance of friendship and ultimately giving a voice to victims, a message that still needs to be put out today, over a hundred years later. My one criticism was that the women were grouped predominantly as a collective throughout the play and perhaps their individual lives could have been delved into more. Overall, however, the themes were without a doubt thought-provoking and informative.

Editor’s note: This performance of The Roses of Whitechapel was seen on 18 April 2024 at Theatre@41, presented by The Penny Magpie Theatre Company.