A new all-female musical based on true historical accounts of rival female street gangs is an exciting prospect. Delivered as music hall melodrama, Susannah Van den Berg’s Chair guides us through the love, loss, betrayal and violence.
But after a fascinating start, Oranges and Elephants loses its way. It feels uncertain of itself, lacking the tightness, control and comic timing of a dynamite music hall act. The long running time of Susie McKenna’s production makes the twists and turns of the plot drag, and as many jokes miss as land. The tricky dynamics of Hoxton Hall mean that the un-miced cast have to belt things out rather than flirt and croon.
Christina Tedders as romantic thief Nellie is the standout, her songs full of sincere longing, charismatic enough to make you want more of her.
Jo Collins’ score wears its influences affectionately on its sleeve – music hall and Irish folk, but also a smattering of Sweeney Todd and other more contemporary musical theatre.
There is certainly love in Lil Warren’s script, just not much care, most apparent in its mishandling of the queer women at its centre. It irons out any nuance in the experience of being a lesbian working class woman in the 19th century in favour of tired tropes: a chaste, barely-there love story (that ends in tragedy, natch) and not one but two sexually violent predatory lesbians.
The final number – a jarring shift into the present with a refrain of “Time’s Up”, in which we are told privilege isn’t going to work any more – rings hollow.