The Unfortunate has been a seven-year labour of love for writer and director Ben Tanner.
Set in London, in 1888, journalist Christian Lane is sent by his unscrupulous editor to report on the latest Jack the Ripper murder. In Whitechapel’s poorest streets, he meets Isobel Prater, damned, like so many Victorian women, to live the degenerate life of an ‘unfortunate’.
Ben explains the play’s genesis: ‘Going back to 2015, a friend of mine gave me a load of books on the Whitechapel murders, knowing that I was interested in true crime. I remember he told me that as fascinating as the murders themselves are as a piece of criminal history – and Jack The Rippper is the ultimate whodunnit – when you start delving into the social history and this world of Victorian Whitechapel, you find that actually the people you meet and the history and the circumstances you read about are actually more fascinating than the crimes themselves. And he was quite right!
‘What struck me very quickly was the individual stories of the victims, the class of women who were dubbed by Victorian society as “unfortunates”, which was essentially this convenient label to put on anyone who fell through the rungs of respectable society.’
With 22 actors playing 47 roles, the play also takes in other aspects of the time, looking at policing, journalism and social reformers.
‘The name Jack The Ripper comes from a letter received by the Central News Agency in the middle of September 1888, and most historians agree that the likelihood of it having come from the killer himself is highly unlikely and it was probably the work of an enterprising journalist.
‘The very name, the very label on this whole Ripper industry – you've got tours, books, films, operas, everything – it's all been churning away for 130 years, is one which stirs our imagination, but we don't actually know who he was, or they were.
‘But the names we do have are the victims names.
‘My main mission in writing The Unfortunate was to give people the opportunity to see the Victorian world in all its grit, but in a real and historically accurate form. So much has been embellished through films and things.
‘I wanted to shine a light on all of this and tear away the spotlight from The Ripper, who's basked in this ill-gotten fame for the last 130 years, and let people find out what it was really like.’
The play was originally going to be staged in 2020, before the pandemic intervened, giving Ben more time to refine his script.
‘Up until 2020 the script had gone through up to 20 drafts and since then it's been redrafted and sharpened more and more.
‘It's very important to me to get that historical authenticity correct but at the same time I don't want to bog the audience down in a history lesson – that's not what this is about, it is a drama.
‘It's about taking elements of the real victims lives and using those to create characters who are fundamentally anchored by the real lives of those women.
‘We see the different strata of society. It looks at social reformers - real people, which history has largely forgotten, like Margaret Harkness who wrote poverty novels and worked there as a dispensing technician but then became a freelance journalist working in Whitechapel.’
In taking on directing as well as writing, Ben adds: ‘I decided early on to leave the writer out of the rehearsal room because it's unhealthy when you get a writer trying to be a director, not quite deciding which one they are, and when there's some poor actor trying to learn lines and come to grips with their character while there all these rewrites coming at them, it's a nightmare.
‘This was a play I felt compelled to write, it was a bit of a crusade, but I wouldn't class myself as a writer.
‘I barely class myself as a director, but I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience.’
The Unfortunate is at The Spring Arts Centre, Havant from April 21-23 and 27-30. Go to thespring.co.uk.