Oranges & Elephants
Reviewed – 25th January 2018
“the evening becomes muddled when Music Hall and Musical Theatre seem to pitch battle against each other”
You can see why Lil Warren, the writer and creator behind “Oranges and Elephants”, fell in love with Hoxton Hall. Restored to its former glory it seems to bring history to life the moment you walk in. The perfect setting, then, for her new musical about rival Victorian gangs and their links to London’s Music Hall world.
Impeccably researched (Warren is an East End girl herself) it focuses on two all-female street gangs: the ‘Elephants’ and the more psychotic ‘Oranges’. We are at the tail end of a long running feud as they battle against their wits, each other, and extinction. The all female cast, far from being a modern day, buzz worthy contrivance, pinpoints the historical truth that this underworld wasn’t just the preserve of men. This is a story of how important your wits are to survive if you are poor and a woman in Victorian London. But gender aside, it is difficult to believe in the characters’ desperation and fear when they often drift into caricature.
The evening is presided over by the ringmaster figure of Susannah van den Berg who narrates with equal measures of gusto and smut, getting the audience firmly on her side. She leads us through the streets of London, and through the action. Into the midst of the gang warfare, the ingénue (but don’t be fooled by appearances) runaway Mary wanders. She wants to be a Music Hall star, while the leaders of the two gangs both want to ‘own’ her. Mary is initially ensnared by Flo (a convincingly cutthroat Kate Adams), the leader of the ‘Oranges’, until Nellie of the ‘Elephants’ falls in love with her and they try to escape from thievery to the bright lights of Piccadilly.
Although concisely conveyed, the evening becomes muddled when Music Hall and Musical Theatre seem to pitch battle against each other, and the strength of the narrative gets lost in the scuffle. That said, the level of musicianship is consistently excellent and there are some very memorable and outstanding numbers in Jo Collins’ score. Liz Kitchen’s Sondheimesque solo to name one, along with a fierce revenge ballad superbly delivered by the charismatic Rebecca Bainbridge. But the stars of the show are undoubtedly the multi-talented Christina Tedders who plays Nellie, and Sinead Long (the runaway Mary). It is no surprise to see them share a heart-wrenching duet before tragedy strikes. Tedders’ virtuosity on the violin is matched by her singing voice, while Long has star quality written all over her.
At over two hours this is initially a slow burner that does eventually win you over. With a bit of pruning it could make its job that much easier. Yes – it is the perfect musical for Hoxton Hall – but, like the characters within it, it might find it a struggle to outreach its life expectancy if it strays from its home turf. I’d like to think it has a long and healthy life, and if it can adapt and survive, it deserves to find a wider audience out there.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Sharron Wallace
Oranges & Elephants
Hoxton Hall until 10th February