Royal and Derngate Theatre
Reviewed – 21st July 2021
“The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping”
This new musical – book and lyrics by April de Angelis, music and lyrics by Lucy Rivers – brings to life William Hogarth’s shocking 1751 etching ‘Gin Lane’ portraying grotesque caricatures of people suffering from the Gin Craze that was rife in the early part of the eighteenth century. As the curtain rises, we meet a number of these ladies under the influence who sing, dance, and extol the virtues of their favourite tipple. A pawn broker’s sign hangs close to the stage, the same sign as in Hogarth’s print.
The set (designed by Hayley Grindle) is built on two levels and reinforces a view of the class divide with the wealthy Fielding family and a semi-sozzled Queen Caroline appearing on the upper level whilst the gin ladies are firmly rooted on the ground and at the bottom of society. Through the shadows of wooden beams and hanging ropes, we can see various musical instruments: harpsichord, violin, cello, double bass, guitar, timpani. Each member of the eight strong ensemble takes their turn at becoming the band. Plus the ever-present MD Tamara Saringer at the keys.
For much of the time we could describe this as a folk musical. The singing is gentle and refined, the lyrics ballad-like in form, and the duets between the two main leads contain excellent close folk harmonies. The arrangement of the songs is most striking particularly those making use of violin and cello underlay.
The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping. “Gin Dive” is the standout song that reappears close to the end in a poignant unaccompanied close harmony version. “It’s the Law” becomes a good old cockney knees-up with comedy trombone. Many of the scenes can be described as bawdy – and are especially enjoyed because of that – at times they are out-and-out plain rude.
The plot – or the message of the show, perhaps – is summed up with the song title, “What does a woman have to do to get a better life?”. We follow the journey of Mary (Aruhan Galieva) who whilst working as a servant is knocked up by the visiting priest, kicked out into the street, tricked into giving away her baby, and narrowly avoids rape and prostitution by setting up as a gin hawker. We learn that life for a woman is not a bed of roses. But then, Mary befriends Lydia (Paksie Vernon), her saving grace.
Director Michael Oakley produces the most spirited scenes when the gin women appear on stage together. If their individual characters do appear on the caricature side of sincere then we can allow that they may have been first based upon a cartoon. But, in the midst of tragedy, despite the best efforts of this hard-working cast, there is little tension to be felt and we remain unmoved. Particularly, much of the momentum is lost after the interval as attention turns away from the rumbustious Gin Lane into the genteel home of the foppish Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni) and his do-gooder sister Sarah (Rachel Winters).
April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers have created a most fascinating feminist – and musical – response to an interesting period of English history which reflects well on Hogarth’s masterpiece that initially inspired the idea.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Ellie Kurttz
Royal and Derngate Theatre until 31st July
Previously reviewed at this venue:
15 Heroines – The Desert
Online from Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 8th November 2020
“an exhilarating and thoughtful production”
The Desert is one of the three instalments in 15 Heroines, a series of monologue’s inspired by a work by the Roman poet Ovid that give a voice to the aggrieved women of ancient mythology. Directed by Adjoa Andoh, Tom Littler and Cat Robey, The Desert gives a platform to Deianaria, Dido, Canace, Hypermnesta, and Sappho, all of whom were abandoned by their husbands or lovers.
We first hear from Dianaria (Indra Ové), the first wife and eventual killer of the great hero Hercules. Reimagined as the betrayed WAG of a star footballer, Dianaria – whose name incidentally means ‘man destroyer’ – plots her revenge on her cheating husband and muses on the laddish culture of celebrity sports. Dido (Rosalind Eleazar) shares her story next. The Queen of Carthage gave refuge to the great Roman hero Aeneas before he left suddenly in the night for Italy. Devastated at his leaving, Dido commits suicide, in myth, by pyre, in this play, by sword.
We then learn about the incestuous romance between Canace (Eleanor Tomlinson) and her brother Macareus who, despite their sordid affair, refused to marry her. Canace here is a guest on a talk show, answering questions about her horrifying relationship from an imagined figure off stage. The defiant Hypermnestra (Nicholle Cherrie) follows with her tale of desertion by her husband despite saving his life at risk of her own.
The great poet Sappho (Martina Laird) ends the quintet speaking about her unfaithful lover Phaon who she refers to as Britain. Sappho’s monologue explores the relationship between coloniser and colonised as Sappho laments her conformation to white beauty standards – bleached skin and a blonde wig – despite her Trinidadian heritage. This theme feels particularly poignant as Lesbos, Sappho’s home, is currently at the centre of the migrant crisis.
Ové, Tomlinson and Laird are the standout performers of the piece. Ové brings a menace to her speech that excites the audience; Tomlinson is fantastically convincing in the role of Canace; and Laird lends a vulnerability to her scene making its themes all the more powerful.
The reimagining of Dianaria, Canace and Sappho are also the most interesting and all have captivating scripts (April De Angelis, Isley Lynn and Lorna French respectively). De Angelis’ script has a welcome touch of humour. For example, Dianaria exclaiming that she was so upset by her husband leaving that she almost gave up hot yoga. Her speech also refers to several footballer scandals from Wayne Rooney to Adam Johnson. Though her tale feels exceedingly personal, we are reminded through these references that abuse and betrayal at the hands of powerful men is far from a rare occurrence.
Lynn’s script takes a different approach from the others, adopting a more conversational and thoroughly light-hearted tone at the beginning. The televised interview is an interesting way to explore such a taboo topic, and highlights how gossip and spectacle is at the heart of celebrity culture.
The sets are all centred around a chair on which the women sit apart from Hypermnestra’s scene (Jessie McKenzie) where Cherrie moves around the stage with great energy. There are also some brief bouts of singing in Hypermnestra’s monologue and a rhythmic breathing serving as a backing track. There is a clever reference to the metre of Sappho’s lyric poetry when Laird hits her papers to a careful beat while reading her letter to Phaon.
The Desert is an exhilarating and thoughtful production. All three chapters of 15 Heroines have explored universal themes of love, loss, and betrayal, but none do so successfully as The Desert that demonstrates how even millennia later, some things never change.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Marc Brenner
15 Heroines – The Desert
Last ten shows reviewed by Flora: