Hoxton Hall – until 10 February. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
This music hall musical about Victorian female gangs is a rip-roaring riot from start to finish. Inspired by the real 40 Elephants gang in Southwark, Oranges and Elephants launches Female Parts, the all-female theatre season at Hoxton Hall.
If you’re expecting a hard-hitting feminist show tackling misogyny and homophobia, then you’ll be left wanting. But if you’re looking for a fun and entertaining night out, then this show won’t disappoint.
Hoxton Hall is the perfect setting for the show, with Susannah van den Berg’s exuberant and wildly talented Chair and Jo Collins as Doreen tinkling the ivories narrating and commenting on the action with stylish glee. Framed as a music hall performance, the characters are all broadly drawn, and the plot feels as if the scripts of Romeo and Juliet, Peaky Blinders, Widows, Bad Girls and Tipping the Velvet were shredded and spliced together randomly. But, as terrible as that sounds, Lil Warren has managed to create something fantastic here. Jo Collins’ music, riffing on Celtic folk, music hall favourites and modern musical theatre standards, fits seamlessly in with the action, emphasising the atmosphere of a Good Old Days/BBC costume drama hybrid that ends with a feelgood singalong.
The turf war over Piccadilly Circus pickpocketing between the Oranges and Elephants is raging as seemingly innocent Mary arrives in London. After having her belongings stolen by the Elephants, Mary is taken by the Oranges and becomes their leader Flo’s plaything. As revenge for the wounding of one of her girls, the leader of the Elephants tasks Nellie to bring Mary to her to scar in retaliation. But Mary and Nellie fall in love and plan to leave the gangs to follow their dreams of music hall stardom. And that really sets the cat among the pigeons.
The South London Elephants have strong Irish roots, and are led fearlessly by Annie, teaching the girls the family code that binds them together. The East London Oranges are led by the brutal Flo, who rules her gang with violence and threats, meaning that their bonds are not as strong. As the story unfolds it becomes clear which set of values is really the most pitiless and terrifying. Lil Warren’s book and lyrics don’t strive for biting realism, rather fast paced storytelling filled with some frankly baffling sayings, which spill from these larger than life characters’ lips without feeling forced.
The Oranges, dressed in men’s clothes and openly predatory, are played with swaggering style, with Rebecca Bainbridge outstanding as the seemingly psychopathic Ada. Her number about cutting up girls and taking their last is dark and disturbing, and the immediate comic relief from van den Berg is very welcome.
Christine Tedders gives a passionate yet world weary performance as Nellie, with her haunting renditions of Celtic airs being the most memorable moments of the show, while Kate Marlais belts out her numbers as Maggie, nearly bringing the house down. Mary begins as an insipid little country mouse – yes, there are lots of jokes about loving the country – and the character’s evolution throughout the show is handled beautifully by Sinead Long. The entire cast are actor/musicians, dashing around the hall to accompany musical numbers, flirt with the audience, or heckle the performers onstage. A fantastic ensemble cast that appear to be having a blast.
Oranges and Elephants is a wonderfully staged and highly entertaining show – the perfect piece of filthy fun for a cold winter’s night.