I remember the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to refer to gin as Mother’s Ruin, and, watching April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers’ new musical about that particular demon drink, it’s no surprise that she did! Apparently, there was a time in the 18th century when the average Briton drank 1.5 litres of the stuff a day, not that any of them would have had a clue what a litre was. Then again, I don’t think they took measures into account; a dram of mothers’? Just swig it, knock it back, get it down you. It was, after all, just an easy exit into oblivion away from the hardships of the world.
Meet the ladies of Gin Lane, and listen to their tales, not only of drunkenness, but of rape, prostitution, murder, robbery, degradation, imprisonment and so on. No wonder they turned to a spot of Gineva to make it go away. There’s Suki – everyone knows Suki, always happy to help you out if you’ve got a baby you can’t afford to keep; she’ll make sure it’s safely looked after. There’s Moll, with her ready wit and personal charms who’ll always let you have your way with her if it keeps her in gin for an hour or so. There’s Lydia, selling top quality gin from her barrow, with her friend Mary; they’ve both got secrets – and you know how secrets have a way of finding you out. And there’s Evelyn, selling her lousy gin and losing her custom to Lydia and Mary; but revenge is a gin best served icy cold.
We also encounter novelist Henry Fielding, who went on to become a magistrate and co-found The Bow Street Runners with his brother John, and we meet his sister Sarah, also a writer and early feminist, encouraging (but not too much) well-meaning but impoverished young women to improve their lot. But how do these historically real people fit into the fictional (?) world of Gin Craze!? You’ll have to see the show to find out.
This magnificent show has success written through it like a stick of rock. Hayley Grindle’s set – a labyrinth of stairs and scaffolding – suggests the dingy streets and sordid alleyways of a Hogarthian London, and the costumes are fantastic – billowing gowns that you can imagine were once grand, but years of grime have worn down; wealth and poverty brought together in sharp focus. April de Angelis’ book and characters are full of wit, depth, and emotion, and there’s a fascinating and strong moral compass at play. Lucy Rivers’ music is melodic, reflective, and engrossing, whilst also capturing a spirit of raucous entertainment. I could list the songs that I enjoyed the most, but I found I was listing almost all of them, so there’s no point doing that! As a mark of a decent musical, each song either extends our understanding of the character singing or progresses the plot so that you never leave a song in the same place that you entered it.
As for the performers, it was one of those rare occasions where every single member of the cast delivered a performance that was 100% faultless, in word, in action, in voice, in musicianship. They form a most extraordinary talented ensemble. This is one of those on-trend productions where each of the cast members also plays an instrument, and the music and book integrate seamlessly. At the heart of the show is the partnership between Mary and Lydia, conveyed perfectly by Aruhan Galieva as Mary and Paksie Vernon as Lydia. Their harmonies when they sing together are just sublime. Ms Galieva has a deceptively simple way of making our heart melt when her character is in trouble (which is a lot of the time) but also rejoice along with her when things are going well. Using the awkward J word here, Ms Vernon delivers a strong and convincing performance of a character who goes on an extraordinary journey throughout life, adapting to her circumstances, surviving against all the odds, until making a final devastating sacrifice. It’s a fantastic performance.
Debbie Chazen is also superb as Moll, who may be addled with alcohol but still has a remarkable eloquence and gives the show huge boosts of humour every time she appears. She is also hilarious as the ghastly Germanic Queen Caroline, wrapping her vocal cords around such delightful phrases as “when things go Titten hoch” with tremendous gusto. Rachel Winters is great as the super-posh Sarah Fielding, slumming it in prison to do research for her latest book, drilling Mary in the ways a woman might succeed, extending her charity just so far – but no further. Rosalind Ford plays with the audience’s emotions in the difficult role of Suki, conveying the fine balance between anger at her deceit and sympathy for her plight. And Paula James is very entertaining as the furious Evelyn, who then becomes a victim of her own heart; her reaction to why her love cannot be requited gets the biggest laugh of the night.
And I haven’t mentioned the gents! Alex Mugnaioni is brilliant as the urbane Henry Fielding, delivering witty (but inappropriate) after dinner jokes about Plato, failing to conceal his automatic stiffy when in a clench with the maid, although later becoming an ultimately callous magistrate. I also liked him very much as Jekyll the courtier and the Constable, torn between not agreeing with the new laws but having to enforce them. And Peter Pearson is also excellent as the hypocritical reverend Thomas Wilson and the blind John Fielding, identifying drolly through sound alone which items of crockery are being smashed around him.
This show just blew us both away with its brilliant mix of comedy and sadness, the quality of the story-telling, the beauty of the music, the wit of the language, the excellence of the performances and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole gin-soaked thing! It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 31st July but it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t go on to have a long and successful life hereafter. Also – a cast recording please!
P. S. By the way, this is a very bawdy show; no nudity or anything like that, but the language could, in Henry Higgins’ words, make a sailor blush. Definitely not one for the kids, and possibly not one for Granny either, depending on her sensibilities – but always remember, never underestimate Granny; she’s seen more years than you have.
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz