The Ballad of Slippery Jack

Following on from the success of ‘Lionhunt!’, composer John Webb and I were commissioned by English National Opera to write a second piece with a similar purpose – for pupils to learn and perform in school – this time for Key stage 2 (Year 5) students at primary schools in Lambeth.

I tried to find a story that was specific to the borough, but soon discovered that nothing of great historical note seems to have happened in Lambeth.

So instead I turned to the cautionary tale of Jack Sheppard, the notorious thief who famously escaped from Newgate prison four times in succession, before finally perishing on the gallows in 1720. (Sheppard was the real-life model for John Gay’s Macheath in ‘Beggar’s Opera’, which premiered a few years later in 1724).  The result was ‘The Ballad of Slippery Jack’.

We’ll tell you the tale of Wicked Jack Sheppard
As brave as a lion and as crafty as a leopard
He was bold, he was bad, he was smart, he was mean
And the greatest escapologist that London’s ever seen!

The Ballad of Slippery Jack

This juicy tale really caught the interest of the kids, and the schools took the project on with great relish. Classes were taken to visit the Museum of London and allowed to handle artefacts from the period, even seeing the door of a genuine Newgate cell. Jack’s story became truly cross-curricular – as well as music and drama, his story was used in classes on literacy, history, citizenship, art, media, moral debate.

The shows were performed in school halls, with wall bars serving as very satisfactory stand-ins for Newgate. As with Lionhunt! there was a central adult narrator figure – a Ballad Seller – so that the children got the chance to sing alongside a professional tenor, which was a thrill. John Webb wrote a true ensemble piece – although Jack was the lead character, he only had one (spoken) line, and otherwise the story was told by the whole company.

For further details on this piece, contact Tamsin or John Webb.

Performance Pictures

Rehearsal Pictures

Comments from Participants:

“We looked at crime and punishment during the 17th century and also used ICT to learn more about fashion at that time. There was quite a lot of drama where hot seating was done to try to empathise with the characters from the opera. There was DT where pupils tried to design a set for the performance. Had there been more time we would have loved to have done more of the activities suggested to support the literacy curriculum”

Teacher, Herbert Morrison School, Lambeth

“We are a very arts conscious school but the standard of work has been raised greatly; we know what the children are really capable of. Please could you steer us in the direction of other great operas to study?”

Teacher, Hitherfield School Lambeth

“We REALLY enjoyed it! They loved the singing and dancing, and making the props. They also enjoyed the history. They worked well together and performed beyond anyone’s expectations.”

Teacher, St. Saviour’s School, Lambeth