Royal & Derngate, Northampton – until 31 July 2021
Hats off to James Dacre’s Royal & Derngate for bravely slapping on a brand new musical in the very week Lloyd Webber and four other London shows got abruptly pinged-off by test ’n’ trace (more like trick-or-treat, frankly: isolation blackmail).
Even better, April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers happen to hit some nicely topical nerves in the time of Bum Flare Man and rabble-riotous, boozy footie-fans and clubbers barely controlled by the police. The result, directed con brio by Michael Oakley, is picaresque fun in the tradition of beggar’s operas (echoes of John Gay, and musical nods to Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera songs). It hits the spirit of the 18c before the Victorians clamped down on behaviour: it’s joyful and dark, scholarly and fantastical, finally rather serious but often very funny and breathtakingly rude (parental advisory: there are some cheerful genital references, sung and otherwise, with words starting with C and an earthiness regarding trouser-contents).
It deals with the mid-1700s, when Hogarth drew the exuberant horrors of “Gin Lane”. A trade deal with the Dutch made the spirt “Ginever” suddenly cheap and plentiful. A populace used to ale and mead – wine and French brandy being for the gentry – started downing the stuff by the pint. It assuaged the grim social conditions of the London mob and panicked the ruling classes into severe and ineffective licensing laws.
When our heroine Mary (Aruhan Galieva) is starving, milkless, cradling her new baby after being raped by a genteel cleric and sacked by her employer, ragged Suki from the gin community offers comfort. Mary accepts: “I am a mother, that’s what I am – I can give comfort, comfort’s a dram.”
She allows Suki (Rosalind Ford as a farouche ginger firecracker) to take the baby off to supposed safety. Unless you know that there was a profitable market in baby-clothes and plenty of drains to dispose of the young owners, you might believe her.
Grim? Well, there’s bleak-grim, of which theatre offers more than enough, and there’s energy-grim. This goes for the latter. Wild music-hall-cum-folk-rock numbers (“It’s the Law, it’s the Law! It’s the law to keep us poor!”) explode as the actor-musicians, instruments in hand, dance or brawl. Mary is rescued from brothel rape by Lydia, who gives up her role as a callous madam to strip the victim, reinvent herself as a man called Jack, and develop a touchingly domestic loving relationship with Mary. But a prison beating and unspoken yearning for her lost child makes her leave him, accepting a job from Sarah, the eccentric writer sister of the Tom-Jones novelist Henry Fielding. In a flash-forward at the start we have seen Mary as Henry’s new wife.
Meanwhile, on the scaffolding above, with an occasional full royal palace backdrop, periwigged toffs attempt social control. De Angelis has artfully ransacked history: Queen Caroline was indeed affronted by the state of the mob , there was a Mary and a Suki, Fielding did indeed marry his maidservant and become a magistrate, and his brother did set up the first formal police, the Bow Street Runners. Into which, naturally, the fake Jack gets recruited…
See? Picaresque. And finally tragic for some, even the survivors. But there are tremendous laughs even before the comedy coffin and the (absolutely historically true) invention of a mechanical wooden cat, the Puss-and-Mew machine which dispensed gin through a paw if you put a coin in its mouth. It defied the licensing laws because the server was behind a wall, unidentifiable. The best laughs are for the magnificent Debbie Chazen as Moll, a bundle of colourful, ragged amiably drunken disgracefulness. Over the matter of Mary’s baby, the veteran streetwalker is asked if she’s ever had a child. “Dunno” she says cheerfully. “When you’re rat-arsed you don’t notice…must have…but you put things down and…?” She also has a dreamy, heart-stoppingly plaintive pissed line early on about the joy of gin. “Ever see a pig’s brain? All coils and coils…ginever runs through the coils, makes it all pure..”. She is of course a theatre veteran (“Used to blow the understudies”).
Chazen doubles as the almost equally tipsy Queen Caroline of Ansbach , with a disgraceful faux-German accent with some startling phrases. She is a joy. And for all the criminality, even the darkly guilty Suki’s, you’re on their side against the pomposity of the men (Alex Mugnaioni and Peter Pearson are six between them in fetching wigs and breeches).
As for the music, nimbly arranged by Tamara Saringer, there are rumbustious ensembles and one or two lovely solos, especially from Paksie Vernon as “Jack”. Others don’t quite hit the musical-theatre showstop button as they need to, but why should they? They impel the story, , and we’re alongside these girls. On their side against the double oppression of poverty and sex.
box office royalandderngate.co.uk to 31 July. There’s even an audio-described show on the 28th. It’s designed to tour, so…long may it…