This is a punchy show to kick off the female-focused Spring season at Hoxton Hall, which revives the traditional vaudevillian energy of the refurbished venue. Directed by Susie McKenna, Lil Warren’s Oranges & Elephants mixes music hall and musical to rousing effect. It’s irreverent, vulgar, and self-referential, with anachronistic touches and a full complement of songs to accompany its story of all-female London gangs in the late 1800s. A welcome shady backstreet to step into.
The story follows Mary (Sinead Long), a scullery maid who’s decided to run towards a future on the stages of London, but instead runs into rival criminal gangs who both want to claim her as their own. Mary is caught between Rebecca Bainbridge’s captivatingly brash Ada, of the Oranges, and the sensitive aspiring performer Nellie, of the Elephants, played by Christina Tedders.
Both Bainbridge and Tedders supply standout performances. A love story ensues, and violence brews. Writer Lil Warren based the fierce, all-women territorial clans partly on The Forty Elephants, who tried to steal a better life for themselves in the harsh conditions of Victorian South London.
We know this grim backdrop from many a period drama, and you’d be frustrated if you tried to dig for a deeper message here. Although the plot hangs around Mary’s search for stardom, it’s too choppily structured to help us follow this as a compelling central journey. Frankly, though, it would have felt at odds with the form if the structure had been smoothed out. Music hall is a very different type of entertainment to the play or the musical, built around songs and acts rather than narrative, and Oranges & Elephants makes clear that it’s not aiming for subtlety or sensibleness. It lays its cards on the table from the start.
This is a “melodrama in two acts” we’re told by Susannah van den Berg’s ebullient Chair, and the show fits the bill in any definition of melodrama – the gangs even have their own costume colour schemes, banners, and chants (“Elephant ladies! Queens of crime!”). The characters are larger-than-life caricatures in a pastiche of Victorian living, and the result is refreshing in its directness.
These quasi-familial and incredibly violent gangs are a pretty interesting subject to explore, and what’s on offer has to be approached as a “roll up, roll up and let me tell you a tale” type of situation. Anything more would feel like listening for a symphony in a pop record – why would you?
The vibrant musical elements from Jo Collins work well to bring the show together and there’s a delightful thread of melodic motifs supported by the ensemble cast, who deftly play various instruments to accompany themselves.
One particularly moving sequence recounts the abuses three of the women suffered before they joined the gangs, another is an emotional song about knife violence. If McKenna’s production is meant to make a point, it would be one about how London has changed, and perhaps, how theatre has changed too.
Oranges & Elephants is at Hoxton Hall until February 10th. For more details, click here.