Just a few months after Notes from a Small Island, it was back to one of my local theatres, The Watermill, for the stage adaptation of another book club selection, this time the Victorian true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize (now called the Baillie Gifford Prize) for non-fiction in 2008.
I must have read the book in 2009, the year after it first came out, and while I had the best intentions of rereading it in time for our book club meeting earlier this month, I didn’t even manage to skim it. I remembered one fact alone, the method of murder, which is not surprising as it was particularly gruesome: A young boy had his throat slit and was stuffed down the privy. But that was all that had remained with me. My husband filled me in on the basics and the discussion, held at our house, reminded me of the rest. We then made it a book club outing to the theatre.
The crime took place in late June 1860 at the Wiltshire home of the Kent family: the patriarch, a factory inspector; his four children from his first marriage; his second wife, formerly the older set’s governess; and their three young children. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate, was one of London’s first modern detectives and inspired Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Constance Kent, 16, later confessed to the murder of her three-year-old half-brother, Saville, motivated by anger at her stepmother for replacing her mentally ill mother, but uncertainty remained as to whether she had acted alone.
The play was very well done, maintaining tension even though there was a decision to introduce Constance as the killer immediately: the action opens on her and Mr Whicher in her cell at Fulham Prison in the 1880s. This is an invented scene in which he has come to visit, begging her to tell him the whole truth in exchange for him writing a letter to try to secure her early release. (She appealed four times but ended up serving a full 20-year sentence.)
Cold, stark lighting and a minimal set of two benches against a backdrop of steel doors and a mullioned window evoke the prison setting, with only the subtle change to warmer lighting indicating flashbacks as Constance and Whicher remember or act out events from 20 or more years before. These two remain on stage for the entirety of the first act. Four other actors cycle in and out, playing Kent family members and various other small roles. For instance, the bearded middle-aged actor who plays Mr Kent also appears as a coroner giving a precis of Saville’s autopsy – he mentions Collins and Dickens, but the evolution of the Victorian detective is, by necessity, a much smaller element of the play than it was in the book.
It’s a tiny theatre, but projections on a screen (such as a sinuous family tree) and a balcony, used for wordless presence or loud pronouncements, made it seem bigger than it was. Saville himself is only depicted as a mute figure on that upper level, in the truly spooky scene that closes the first act. I remember when the Watermill put out a discreet call for child actors, warning parents about the sort of content to expect. Three children play the role (plus one other bit part) in rotation. Pulsing violin music enhanced the feeling of dread, and each act was no more than 45 minutes, so the atmosphere remained taut.
A missing nightdress – presumably blood-stained – as well as her own father’s hunch, were among the main evidence against Constance, so Whicher did not secure a conviction at the time and was publicly ridiculed for his failure to crack the case. That and his own loss of a child are suggested to be behind his obsession with tying up loose ends. While Constance expresses regret for her actions and calmly takes him through the accepted timeline of the murder, she refuses to give him anything extra.
The second act delves into what happened next for Constance: living among nuns in France and then in Brighton, where she decided to confess, and then relocating to Australia, where she worked in a halfway house for lepers and troubled youth, as if to make up for the harm she caused earlier in her life (and she lived to age 100!). This involved the most significant change of set and actors, with the former Mr. and Mrs. Kent now filling in as the older Constance and William, the brother closest to her in age.
The play fixates on the siblings’ relationship, returning several times to their whim to run away to Bristol and be “cabin boys” together. I wondered if there was even meant to be a sexual undercurrent to their connection. William Savill-Kent went on to be a successful marine biologist specialising in corals and Australian fisheries. One theory is that they were accomplices in the murder but Constance took the fall so that her brother could live a full life.
Intriguingly, the team behind the production decided to espouse this hypothesis explicitly. In the chilling final scene, then, a crib is wheeled out to the centre of the stage and Constance floats on in a white nightdress to lower the side closest to the audience. Just before the lights go down, William, too, appears in a white nightdress and stands over the far side of the crib.
Although I referred to the book as “compulsive” in the one mention I find of it in my computer files, from 2011, I only gave it 3 stars – my most common rating in those years, an indication that a book was alright but I moved right along to the next in the stack and it didn’t stick with me. My book club had mixed feelings, too, generally feeling that there was too much extraneous detail, which perhaps kept a narrative that could have read as fluidly as a novel from being truly gripping. The play, though, was thrilling.
Book (c. 2009):
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I also read this book far too long ago to have strong memories of it. But I wouldn’t have guessed it would make a stage play. I wonder if it might tour our way?
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It worked surprisingly well! They cut out all the boring history bits and focused on the central mystery and its psychological motivations. I haven’t heard whether it will tour. I hope so.
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I’ll keep my eyes open. Thanks.
Interesting review! I couldn’t finish the book – it landed too awkwardly between history and narrative for me. This sounds a lot better.
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I don’t think I would pick up historical true crime these days, but back then I was a sucker for anything Victorian.
My book club was expecting more of a novelization and would probably have enjoyed that more on the page. We all loved the play, though!
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