Saturday, 14 May 2016

Shadows on the Stage: Notes on a scandal

The Sins of Jack Saul
dir Steven Dexter • scr Glenn Chandler • music Charles Miller
with Jack McCann, Michael Gonsalves, Sam Chipman, Ciaran Bowling, Hugh O'Donnell, Felicity Duncan, David Mullen
Above the Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 11.May-12.Jun.16

Above the Stag continues to stage ambitious productions in its uniquely intimate space under a railway arch in Vauxhall. This musical reunites the team behind last year's hit Fanny & Stella for another true story from the seedy side of Victorian London.

Born in Dublin, Jack Saul (McCann) became a notorious prostitute in late 19th century London. He was immortalised as the central character in his infamously pornographic 1881 memoir The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (the title refers to Sodom and Gomorrah). He was also an outspoken activist long before such a thing existed, refusing to back down as he was drawn into the Cleveland Street Scandal in 1889, when the police sweep of a gay brothel threatened to reveal the names of high-profile clients from politicians to aristocrats.

Playwright Chandler tells this story through a framing device as Jack discusses his life and fate with the devilish Fergus (Gonsalves) while various scenes emerge around them. The other five actors play multiple characters who circle around Jack, including family members, clients, fellow rent boys and figures from his trial. Most scenes include songs, from conversational numbers to a few nicely memorable tunes.

All of this is fascinating, with telling details about an intriguing element of London's history and a willingness to honestly confront issues that have been obscured over the decades. But the abstract staging means that it remains rather academic. The set has been recycled from the previous production into a kind of brutalist collection of Escher-style stairs and platforms that don't offer any particular insight into the characters or situations, even with the astute lighting and sound touches. And the costumes are equally generic, mainly theatrically goth coats and black jeans.

Still, the actors bring the various elements of Jack's story to life, with individual scenes that resonate strongly. McCann's performance is soulful and engaging, although Chandler's script never quite makes Jack into a fully fledged character. His passion is completely missing from the role, as is any meaningful sense of his sexuality. His interaction with Gonsalves' smirking Fergus offers the occasional hint of interest, but never generates any spark. Other relationships are more emotional, although the remaining actors play three to five characters each, so the inter-connections never quite develop.

Jack Saul is a superb subject for a play like this, and this production offers what feels like a general overview. It never feels like much more than an introduction. And a more resonant and perhaps more outrageous approach could have made it more entertaining and enlightening. Perhaps the biography Chandler has also written will shed more light on his personality and personal life.

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