“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.
“The formidable characters displayed are certainly matched by the starry cast”
The dinner party has always offered food for thought for playwrights and, over the years, many fine examples have been dished up in our theatres. Neil Simon’s ‘The Dinner Party’ (obviously), Moira Buffini’s ‘Dinner’, David Eldridge’s ‘Festen’, Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ and, of course, Alan Ayckbourn whose ‘Absurd Person Singular’ and ‘The Norman Conquests’ stand out. There is no place like the dinner table for drama, grudges, arguments, feuds and even a little crazy affection to surface.
Steven Carl McCasland has taken this formula and garnished it with a generous blend of fact and fiction. And plenty of friction. “Little Wars” brings together some of the most extraordinary and noted women in modern literature. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are the hosts entertaining none other than Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. They are in France, tensions are high, the booze is flowing, and war is coming. Together they drink, and face a demon or two. Everyone has a confession and a secret and as the evening wears on their hard exteriors wear down.
The play is split into two halves. Initially the bickering and sharp-witted banter dominates and the personalities clash with subtle, though bitchy, humour. The presence of the only non-writer guest shifts the conversation into an impassioned discussion of the plight of Jews in the looming shadow of World War II. There is a real depth to the dialogue which also draws in the German, Jewish housemaid whose backstory certainly throws gas on the fire.
The formidable characters displayed are certainly matched by the starry cast. Linda Bassett dominates as Gertrude Stein with a swaggering petulance that eventually cracks to reveal a softer centre. Catherine Russell gives a richness to her lover, Alice Toklas; teasing her out from under the shadow of the presiding Stein. Juliet Stevenson bursts in with prickly invective which you both delight in and are repulsed by. Stevenson’s masterful performance renders the unattractive appealing and her eventual moral sea change quite moving. Debbie Chazen’s gin-soaked Dorothy Parker is forever teetering on the edge while, in contrast, Sophie Thompson’s Agatha Christie rounds everyone together with her outside eye, like one of Christie’s own detectives, probing and trying to understand. But the unsung heroines of the piece are the two characters who exist on the edges of this literary ‘salon’. Natasha Karp’s Bernadette, the housemaid, has the most harrowing story to tell. And it is fundamentally her story we are being told. Hers, and the plight of countless other Jews during the Nazi invasion of France. Crucial to the story too is Sarah Solemani’s Muriel Gardiner who is not afraid to challenge the women’s self-belief and prejudices, and who is just as fearless in the face of the Occupation.
The themes addressed in “Little Wars” are compelling. It possibly helps to have some background knowledge of the real-life personalities portrayed, but McCasland’s skill, meticulous research and flamboyant imagination leave you enthralled throughout. Almost. By necessity this production is a rehearsed reading and the limitations of Zoom, despite Hannah Chissick’s dynamic direction, are sometimes all too noticeable. The lack of reaction and interaction inherent in the format emphasises the need and the longing for theatre to return to its true home.