My Friday night was spent at the charming Hoxton Hall – a refurbished music hall, soaked in history – which is partially enhanced by the new musical currently on there: Oranges and Elephants, a show exploring the life and times of the all-female Victorian gangs of London.
We’re treated to a full female production here – both on stage and off. Working class writer, Lil Warren, conceived the idea, creating a musical with music and arrangements by Jo Collins and direction by Susie McKenna. It’s a lively interpretation of the two infamous Victorian gangs; the Oranges of Bethnal Green, and the Elephants of Elephant and Castle, pushed towards crime to escape crippling poverty.
We’re welcomed by the boisterous and bellowing Chair, played by Susannah van den Berg. She narrates and shifts the story along, at one point breaking up the action by directing the characters herself, for a wonderful comic effect. And, in true music hall fashion, she encourages the audience to sing along using the song sheets provided. On the whole, the songs are fun and catchy, with hilarious feminist banter:
You’ll never tire of London
Her style, and vicious wit
But if you have a fanny
You are in the bloomin’…
We are introduced to the Irish women of the Elephant gang where we meet the sombre, yet incredibly talented, Nellie (Christina Tedders), who dreams of being a star, but also happens to be an exceptional thief, dragged into the gang life and dictated to by their ring leader, Annie (Liz Kitchen). These women are tied to “The Family Code”, as expressed through song. Tedders stands out throughout, with a stunning, yet fittingly melancholy tone to her voice, and like the rest of the cast, is able to pick up an instrument at any given moment. These women carry the whole show, as they sing and play all the instruments – from violin through to accordion, to create an authentic music hall-esque sound.
On the other side of the coin we have the Jewish gang, the Oranges – an altogether less “family” like gang, who mainly bully and abuse each other. They are led by the “apparently” monstrous Flo, played by Kate Adams. Fundamentally, this part is miscast; her soft voice and body language does not scream gang leader. I think Rebecca Bainbridge who plays psychotic Ada would have been a better, more terrifying fit – although, I feel she overacts at times. As a gang, I find the Oranges less believable and more like Victorian caricatures (or perhaps it’s just unfortunate that they’re all dressed like the Artful Dodger). As a general note though, I really appreciate the period dress and set design by Sara Perks.
The whole status-quo is tipped on its head when Mary (Sinead Long) arrives in London from the North; she’s thrown from pillar to post, becoming a precious commodity and bargaining tool between the gangs. However, here is where my confusion around the musical itself begins. It appears to showcase itself as a strong, female-led cast, tackling the issues women faced at the time, yet when the Oranges have possession of Mary, they act like men – leering, forcing themselves onto her and caring only about her aesthetic beauty. They are simply mirroring the Victorian patriarchal norms of the time.
Nevertheless, the story is broken up by a beautiful, Tipping the Velvet-esque tragic love story between Mary and Nellie, as the two attempt to escape. At this point they share a charming little duet, striking the balance between wonderful comic timing and tenderness.
This show is a fascinating insight into an area of history so rarely investigated – the lives of real, working class women. I understand that it didn’t receive rave reviews – but I for one am glad to see more women creating theatre. Over thirty women were involved in this project, which is incredibly inspiring as a woman just dipping her foot into the theatre industry. I’m sick of seeing re-runs of tired, patriarchal plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross – traipsing through the same masculine power-plays. The stage is for exploration, and I for one am glad of shows like Oranges and Elephants that shine a light on the stories still left untold.
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