Interview: Director Mingyu Lin on Jack & I

Jack and I: The Jack the Ripper Musical made its Brighton Fringe debut this year after enjoying success at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. It charts the investigation into the slippery killer Jack the Ripper, with Inspector Abberline trying to balance his fraying marriage, the demands of his boss and prying journalists, all the while the Ripper gets further and further into his mind. Although the set was smeared with smoke, the show itself was far from the grit and dirge you’d expect of a story set in 1800s London.

Jack and I’s pull for me came largely from the juxtaposition of the musical form and subject matter. Would Jack and I take a brooding Sweeney Todd approach, or would it be a more glitz and glamour Broadway affair?

Director Mingyu Lin, who has directed extensively for both film and theatre, spoke to me about just that, discussing the relationship between the musical form and the story, how a venue can help or hinder a production, and Punchline Theatre’s endeavour to defy industry stereotypes by creating quality productions boasting BAME casts. Read what Mingyu Lin had to say below.

The story of Jack the Ripper is undeniably disturbing, but Jack and I mixes that darkness with musical theatre satire. What do you think the musical form brings to the story of Jack and I?

It’s most definitely some very dark and intriguing material to work with, a lot of research was done in the writing process and we wanted to ensure that it didn’t end up sounding like a history book, with facts crammed in one after the other. Having it set as a musical helps make the topic more accessible and keeps audiences engaged. Alongside the source material we’re also parodying detective fiction tropes plus the musical genre itself and juxtaposing that against the morbid backdrop of the events in Whitechapel.

You’re taking Jack and I to Baron’s Court, a very intimate venue in Kensington, London. How do you think the venue will affect the play?

Baron’s Court theatre is underneath Curtains Up pub and is very much a basement space characterised by dark walls, stone arches and two pillars downstage. In a sense, it’s the perfect setting to recreate the dingy, foggy feel of Victorian Whitechapel at night. We’ll also take advantage of the intimacy of the venue to immerse the audience in the setting. The technical set up available is very bare bones but we’re allowed the freedom to take over the space while we’re in it, so we’ll be custom building and installing a lot.

What challenges are you faced with when directing in small spaces?

With Jack and I in particular there are a lot of scenes with the whole cast on stage, having it not feel crowded and static is a problem so the challenge is to keep the action looking dynamic but not unnatural. With musicals specifically the problem is also coming up with interesting choreography in the limited space and with the numbers you have in a small scale production. Set elements are also a challenge. For the London run we are working on building set elements that can help establish scene settings while still remaining minimal and versatile. Baron’s Court theatre also has pillars in the way, so it’s about working around obstructed views or even incorporating that in.

Finally, if you have any, tell us about any future projects you might have cooking. You have the last word!

Right after Jack and I, I’ll be directing a rehearsed reading of BEA playwright Lucy Sheen’s Shofu Wianbu Pi for the 2017 Women and War Festival at Streatham Theatre on 13th July 2pm. The play tackles the atrocities of war and the controversial comfort women issue through the eyes and experiences of three surviving comfort women. I’ll also be directing a short film comedy written by Siu Hun Li and produced by Shuang Teng (who has also produced Jack and I) titled Sandwich. Longer term, we hope you haven’t seen the last of Jack and I yet! There’s so much more we feel we can push with the show and it can still be refined; we’ll definitely be hoping to stage it again in future.

Here Mingyu mentions that Jack and I features a majority BAME cast. This drew my mind back to Julian Fellowes’ recent statement defending the all-white casting of Half a Sixpence, claiming historical accuracy as the reason for the exclusively white cast. A consequent poll run by The Stage showed that a 58% majority of people did not believe that period productions have less responsibility to uphold diverse casting. It’s also worth mentioning Hamilton, the hip hop and history mashup musical telling the story of the Founding Fathers of America, that features an incredible and diverse cast worlds apart from the historical – and white – figures they portray. The correlation between historical accuracy and Hamilton‘s 11 Tony awards can speak for itself there.

But, as Jack and I proves, you don’t need a Tony award winning musical to promote creative talent and diverse casting, as Mingyu Lin explains:

We at Punchline are very passionate about diversity in theatre. Jack and I is one of the only British period musicals featuring a majority BAME cast. We wanted to make a statement, that having a BAME cast in a period production isn’t so unbelievable as the industry seems to think it is; none of the reviews we received mentioned ethnicity being a factor to preventing any enjoyment of the piece. We hope we can contribute to breaking industry casting stereotypes.

Jack and I: The Jack the Ripper Musical will be at Baron’s Court in London from June 8th to July 1st.

You can read Box Five’s review of Jack and I here.

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