‘Oranges and Elephants’ review

Theatre, Musicals
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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Bawdy, misguided musical about feuding Victorian girl gangs

Lil Warren’s new all-female musical is a firmly tongue-in-cheek trip into the world of Victorian lady gangs – without a petticoat in sight. It’s directed by Susie McKenna, maestro of Hackney Empire’s hugely successful annual panto, which might go some way to explaining its combination of thigh-slapping energy, women dressed in knickerbockers and utter nonsense.

It’s stuffed full of the kind of lines that might just work when you’re half-cut and waving one of those glowing fibreoptic sticks, but barely fly out of panto season. Like ‘I'm not a mouse, I have tits’. (For the record, rodents suckle their young). Or the indisputably true but still baffling ‘tears make your face wet but money buys you biscuits’.

Thick with cockneyisms and ‘Blackadder’-ishly extravagant similes, Warren’s script isn't the easiest to follow – although Susannah van den Berg’s old-school showmanship as Chair helps fill in some of the gaps, and the tub-thumping music hall-style songs hammer home its themes in a nice nod to Hoxton Hall’s history. Loosely, it’s the story of real-life Southwark gang the Elephants, a matriarchal crew of Irish women who pick pockets to fill theirs. They’re pitched against rivals the Oranges, who are an ‘Oliver Twist’-style bunch of queer-coded lost souls, butch in bowler hats and waistcoats.

Mary (a bland, ringleted Sinaed Long) is a simple country girl (cue the first of many vag jokes) who falls into the Oranges’ clutches. She’s ‘given’ as a prize to their predatory leader, in a kind of Victor Hugo-style scene of retro-sexual exploitation that feels uncomfortably stereotyped in an all-female cast. For some reason, wonderfully sweet-voiced Elephant Nellie (Christina Tedders) falls for Mary too, but their Romeo and Juliet-style romance ends before it starts thanks to Mary’s inexplicable decision to tip Nellie into the river, following a bit of gleefully violent inter-gang fisticuffs.

Reimagining history is an art form that Sarah Waters’s ‘Tipping the Velvet’ perfected: Warren’s script feels derivative of the telly adaptation of her novel, but loses the actually radical part of Waters’s work, which was her utopian ability to recast women of the past as living and loving happily outside corseted Victorian society. After the misery and endless infighting on show, a final song that shoehorns in the phrases ‘check your privilege’ and ‘time’s up’ rings hollow.

By: Alice Saville



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