Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin is featuring in the first UnWrapped series at the Sydney Opera House, which gives audiences the opportunity to see contemporary Australian performances rarely staged beyond their premiere seasons. This is a review of the show's Sydney Festival 2017 season.
If you don’t think a cabaret that quotes 18th century lawmakers can be hot as fuck, then you haven’t seen Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin.
Gin is one the most politicised drinks in the world: Government-sanctioned propaganda blamed it for British madness and destruction, and its most common mixer, tonic water (which contains the malaria remedy quinine), was used as both a weapon and tool of African colonisation.
But gin’s history is also closely tied to women’s rights. It wasn’t men that were driven to madness and infanticide in the famous ‘Gin Lane’ print that helped usher in the Gin Act, curbing the drinking of the English poor. The men were all over in the accompanying ‘Beer Street,’ perfectly healthy and happy. It was the women who were depicted as ill, mad and lost to gin.
Society has never liked a woman who drinks.
Part feminist history lesson, part socio-political smackdown, part raunchy cabaret, Mother’s Ruin is the work of performers Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood (both members of feminist musical comedy group Lady Sings it Better), written with gin enthusiast and blogger The Ginstress (Elly Baxter) and directed by Anthea Williams (Belvoir’s associate director), with musical direction by Jeremy Brennan.
Marsden and Wood are funny in a natural, unselfconscious way: their ease with the audience and each other is clear as they trade looks and one-liners in between, or in the middle of, their songs. We only get to spend an hour with them charting the history of gin, women, and their interconnection, but it’s a buoyant, funny and moving hour: a whole and complete experience.
The set-list is as packed with gin references as you’d expect, from Amy Winehouse to Cabaret, and a take on ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ that manages to make it both about gin and mansplaining. Williams keeps the show moving from anecdote to musical number and back again, balancing the show’s heart with its bag of jokey sight-gag tricks.
Jeremy Brennan’s support on the piano and backing vocals is like the twist of orange peel in a Four Pillars G&T: a finishing touch that refreshes and enhances the brightness of the cabaret’s two stars. His easy bootlegger vibe is charming, and he helps usher in a show highlight: a rousing singalong to Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’.
But it’s the range, depth, and content of the stories Marsden and Wood tell us, along with the gorgeous harmony of their pure voices, that linger once the cabaret is over.
We learn about a woman who, more than one hundred years ago, invented a gin cocktail at the Savoy that’s still on the menu today – but who lost her job because American businessmen didn’t like a woman behind the bar. We learn about the Australian women who chained themselves to a bar for the right to be served there. We’re treated to a sultry list of the symptoms of malaria set to the tune of ‘Fever'; a very white rap about the history of gin; and a recipe for the perfect G&T.
And we learn about women who have lost their lives – sentenced to death or found dead after a life of trying to find a place for themselves in a world where they are oppressed, silenced, and dismissed.
Marsden and Wood serve as a voice for centuries of voiceless women who are constantly admonished, restricted, and punished for sharing an opinion, for daring to have a drink, for daring to want anything men might have. It’s their defiant anger and deep empathy for centuries of hurting women that elevates this show from a fun history lesson to a complex and deeply moving work of political art.
When Marsden sings Martha Wainwright’s famous cri de coeur on behalf of every woman who is left behind to take care of the home and family as her husband spends more and more time at the pub, she is a revelation: she finds the soul of that song and builds slowly, heart-stoppingly to that moment of release in the lyrics: “you bloody, motherfucking asshole,” she sings, like it’s the first time all these women have ventured to say it aloud. It’s genuinely profound.
Later, she and Wood sing The Pretenders’ ‘Hymn for Her’ a cappella, in elegy for all the women who came before: who suffered and were forced into suffering and who fought for the right for these two women to sing onstage between sips of gin as part of Sydney Festival 2017, proud and unapologetic, beautiful and powerful.