REVIEW: Bloody Jack, Woodland Centre, Rustington

JACK the Ripper's reign of terror in Victorian London lasted only a few months but became what is probably the most infamous series of murders in criminal history.

Countless books, films and plays have been produced on the subject, which continues to fascinate readers and audiences worldwide more than a century later.

The image of a shadowy figure wielding a menacing blade as it stalks the foggy, gas-lit streets of Whitechapel in the 1880s is still a potent, albeit horrifying image.

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The fact that the case was never solved has added greatly to its enduring appeal and has resulted in an unending stream of speculation about the identity of the Ripper and his (or her) motive in carving up prostitutes.

Playwright Tim Kelly puts forward his own ideas in Bloody Jack, selected by Rustington Players as their 213th production and their first of 2009.

This presentation at the Woodlands Centre started well and promised much with its eerie prologue (played in front of the curtains on extra staging) in which a prostitute plying her trade underneath a gas lamp was seduced into the swirling fog by a dark figure dealing death.

A piercing scream not only signalled her grisly demise, but was also the cue for the curtains to part, revealing a splendid set representing the parlour at the Whitechapel home of Dr Thaddeus Sargent.

Unfortunately, the excitement ended there.

What ensued, although done earnestly enough, was almost as tame as a vicarage garden party.

Kelly introduced eight principal characters, most of whom could, in theory, have been the killer.

Clues and red herrings abounded, doubtless helping (or perhaps hindering) the audience in its task of guessing the guilty party's identity and earning a prize for the first correct answer drawn in the interval.

The play proved a somewhat uneasy blend of fact and fiction, providing a few chilling moments and a couple of rewarding roles for a cast working under the direction of Val Daly.

Nick Rowling performed capably in the demanding central role of Dr Sargent, an eminent physician engaged on research projects.

The murders were taking place almost literally on his doorstep and he performed the autopsies on the victims.

If he could be the killer, then so could his intern, the mysterious Stephen Barrows who dressed in a sinister fashion and was, we were informed, going to make a first-class surgeon.

David Griffin made this a convincingly dubious character.

Top acting honours, though, belonged partly to Paul Ward who was effectively cast as the determined Inspector Flanders, dedicated to catching Jack before he left the force through ill-health.

"I want to get this killer and, if I could, I would gladly punish him myself with my own hands," he vowed grimly.

And you believed him.

The other tiptop performance was contributed by Lauretta Tomlinson who brought a professional touch to her persuasive playing as Lady Flora Chilton, an aristocratic trustee of Dr Sargent's clinic, an exponent of witty gossip and a leader of fashion.

With her romantic sights set on the doctor, she was progressive enough to follow in the footsteps of Queen Victoria and propose marriage herself.

Other parts were competently handled by Colin Bolton as the doctor's orderly Morgan, a thieving, blackmailing ex-felon, and Jenny Pickering as Sargent's daughter Ellen, who had her eye on the intern.

Danni Mariner and Louise Young characterised the constantly bickering parlourmaid Margaret and the housekeeper Mrs Hiller.

Georgina Ginnaw and Nick Bolton, in minor parts, completed the cast.

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