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Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Abberline’s Artefact

Jan van der Black / Polymorph Theatre

Genre: Drama, Solo Performance

Venue: Space Triplex


Low Down

Frederick Abberline, the man who didn’t catch Jack the Ripper, is dead but he still has some important work to do.


I have to admit from the outset that I am a Jack the Ripper buff. I have had books published on the subject, been in many TV documentaries and lectured on the case for over a decade. I make a point of seeking out work that deals with the Autumn of Terror. This is the first time I have seen one that has taken a different angle and done so with a lot of heart and admirable intent.

The performance area in Space Triplex is in semi-darkness as we enter. A man dressed in Victorian costume is asleep in an armchair, surrounded by books, newspapers and other props. There’s the sound of seagulls. He wakes with a start and immediately downs a drink. We learn this is John Davis (Ripper historians will know this name). He has been living in this house in Bournemouth for some time. No one else has stayed because the building is haunted. He has woken up in these clothes, most of the whiskey has been drunk, all these books on the Ripper are on the floor but he has no interest in the case.

This is the house where the detective who has more connection to the Jack the Ripper case, Chief Inspector Fred Abberline, died in 1929 (not the fictional opium den in the movie ‘From Hell’). Davis is having a meltdown and van der Black expertly portrays a man who is terrified, confused and broken without resorting to histrionics. He is so engaging that you just want to hear his voice alone. You don’t want interruptions.

This would be an outstanding radio play. However, the voices of the women killed in 1888 come through the speakers and it is disappointing when they do. The recorded performances are perfectly believable but the actual quality of them is poor. They are hissy, sometimes distorted, and with momentary silences where they have been spliced together. They desperately need to be done again. With the exception of Mary Jane Kelly (commonly believed to have been 25 at the time of her death), they also sound too young to be the ill, alcoholic women of between 39 and 47 they were. I wonder how it would work if van der Black himself were to take on these voices. They are, after all, really being heard inside his own head. Likewise, the musical interludes aren’t needed. They don’t detract, but this performer is an inspiration to watch and the support is unnecessary.

It is a very intimate show. At times it feels like it’s one-on-one. It needs this claustrophobic space and would lose some of its appeal were it to be performed in a larger area. A shame this is the case, as this work really deserves to be seen for one reason above all others: Jan van der Black has written this to take you out of your complacency. The point of this show is to stop you focusing on the eternal Hollywood-inspired bogeyman and to think about the reality of the lives of the women he killed. It is a tribute to them and does not exploit their memory. I haven’t seen a show dealing with the subject before that has done this. There is no ghoulish comedy here. This is disturbing – and the real case is disturbing. To have had the originality to deviate from the norm, van der Black has done his research (I didn’t notice a single historical gaffe) and he deserves plaudits.

The character Davis has discovered a box in Abberline’s old house which is full of artefacts from the women’s personal possessions. I did wonder if this was inspired by the storm in a teacup in 2015, where a shawl supposedly belonging to victim Catherine Eddowes (it didn’t) was tested for DNA and traces were found linking it to her and suspect Aaron Kosminki (it turns out the tests were calculated erroneously and the DNA results are shared by 95% of the population, but that’s another story). However, being a Gothic story, the items are presented to us. We have now become the congregation at a Spiritualist meeting but it is never clear whether it is Abberline or Davis who is bringing us these things. If it’s Davis, it makes perfect sense to me. If it’s Abberline, he is slightly too emotional and upset. Various items are handed to a woman in the audience and the voices of the victims come through again, describing in real-time what is happening to them. This is hammering home the point to us that these were innocent women who did not deserve what happened to them and that their assailant was no anti-hero, but a deeply unpleasant serial killer.

His task completed, Abberline can rest. He leaves the stage. I would have liked something extra at the end, maybe showing Davis being free of the possession he had undergone. The show runs under-time at barely 45 minutes but the job is done.

There are a few things, largely technical, that I think should be looked at but this is a very good script, an extremely talented performer and a wonderful intention.