What’s it like appearing in the world premiere of an all-female, actor-musician, gang musical? Actress Kate Marlais, who is a composer herself, spoke to Love London Love Culture about Oranges & Elephants, opening next week at London’s Hoxton Hall.
Could you start by telling me a little bit more about Oranges & Elephants?
It’s an all-female musical set within gang-riddled Victorian London. Based on the real girl gangs of the time, we follow the Oranges of Bethnal Green and the Elephants from over the water as they battle out their turf war, against the backdrop of music hall and the rise to fame of star Marie le Grand.
You play Maggie. How does she fit into the story? What’s she like as a character?
She’s a member of the Elephants, of Irish descent but has lived in Walworth, London for a while. Unfortunately, Maggie gets nicked early on and has to stand trial in court. She’s not the brightest button but is loyal to her gang, and she uses humour and her womanly charms to slip out of trouble. She knows that the stakes are high – then, you could be hanged for very little, or thrown into the awful workhouses.
Have you done any research into what life would have been like for a Victorian woman?
Yes, of course! I love reading up on the history of London, especially from the perspective of a woman. The class divide was enormous; life was harsh for the working classes. Being part of a gang, especially for women, was safer than being on the streets. I’ve really enjoyed researching the London girl gangs, something I knew very little about. These women didn’t often use knives, but they were tough, scrapped a lot, and used wit, cunning, distraction techniques and cross-dressing to disguise themselves. And they rarely got caught.
What would you say the main message of the musical is?
Women. Definitely. It’s about women, played by women and created by women. There are so many stories and theatre pieces about women that are written by – and told from the perspectives of – men. So it’s been excellent and important to have had so many female voices in the process on this occasion. Here, women are taking control and trying to survive in the face of sharp poverty and dire prospects.
All of the Oranges & Elephants cast play an instrument on stage. How important is that to the production?
The business of music hall, against which the gang storylines are set, provides us with a natural musical linchpin, thus most of the songs in the show are diegetic. The instruments, too, are part of our characters and their lifestyles and are integral to the narrative itself. Music is used within the music hall for entertainment; within the gangs to distract and steal, to comfort, to rile, and for enjoyment; instruments are weapons and symbols of strength.
Having composed a few musicals yourself, how would you describe the music for Oranges & Elephants?
It’s always fantastic to hear (and be part of) well-crafted music, and Jo Collins has created a set of highly catchy songs, congruous with the winding plot, which have buckets of atmosphere and jauntily nod to the era. The piece has one foot firmly in the 21st century, so some of the music is modern in flavour, delightfully and playfully ungoverned by historical constraint.
What made you most want to take part in this production?
I’ve wanted to work with director Susie McKenna for a while. She’s fab. I love the history of the piece, and anything female-centric gets a big thumbs up from me.
What are you most looking forward to about appearing in Oranges & Elephants?
I’ve got a really fun solo – which can only be described as a bit of a slam poetry rap. I’ll be boldly giving it 140% commitment, and some strong eyebrow action.
The world premiere of Oranges & Elephants runs at Hoxton Hall from 23 January to 10 February 2018, the first production in the theatre’s all-female spring season, Female Parts.