Hoxton Hall, tucked down a side street in the depths of East London, is the perfect location for the debut of Lil Warren’s new musical, Oranges & Elephants. The vaudeville-style stage that reopened after refurbishment in 2015, acts as the ideal setting for this all-singing, all-dancing, all-women cast of East End gangs.
Warren has created a ‘her’ story, writing a women-first version of Victorian London gangland. The eponymous Oranges & Elephants are the two gangs, with the Oranges based in Bethnal Green, and the Elephants ruling Elephant & Castle and the Woolworth Road, and while there are brief mentions of the ‘boys’, this civil war, with violence, murder and sexual abuse – by no means a light affair – remains between these all-too-quickly-overlooked women.
A confident, and chameleonic Susanna van den Berg as the Chair, who demonstrates an impressive vocal range that never fails to surprise, and Jo Collins –founder of Chickenshed – as Doreen on the piano, guide you through the tale. The pair is wonderfully matched as comperes, as they work together to bring some of the most humorous moments to life.
That said, there is a serious message, and as the nine women who make up these gangs perform, wielding violins, cellos, double bass and drum, they demonstrate a serious virtuosity and ability to ‘do it all’. These modern women are as emancipated as these fearsome gang members as imagined by Warren.
One particularly poignant moment is when the gangs sing together ‘Time’s Up’, which is reminiscent of the current feminist Time’s Up campaign taking over Hollywood. The energy and drive demonstrated by the cast inside these “gin-soaked walls” as they stamp their feet, and their voices overwhelm Hoxton Hall, captures the same energy.
The script does rely somewhat on placing women in the narratives of men. This is most obvious with Mary, the prize that the two gangs fight over. Having run away from her job as a scullery maid as her master was sexually abusing her, she laments that by coming to London nothing has changed as Flo, the Oranges gang leader, takes a shine to her new “doll” Mary. These women emulate male behaviour, good and bad, demonstrating, as Doreen says, “it’s the same old gravy, different flavour”.
Rebecca Bainbridge is fantastic as the bloodthirsty Ada, who man-spreads across the steps as she plans her next attack. While Kate Marlais who plays Maggie, a member of the Elephants who is wrongfully imprisoned, sings one of the best solos from her cell, and manages to convey a powerful, emancipated woman with very little stage time.
Oranges & Elephants is a jam-packed 150 minutes, with some catchy songs, and a chance to sing along. Yet, most importantly this musical is led by a group of impressive female talent. Well worth seeing.
Oranges & Elephants is playing Hoxton Hall until 10 February 2018
Photo: Sharron Wallace