Review - Oranges and Elephants (Hoxton Hall)

An all-female musical about gang rivalry in Victorian London is the tantalising premise of Oranges and Elephants, the new show which is currently playing at Hoxton Hall as part of an all-female theatre season. The quaint, distinctly olde worlde music hall certainly helps to set the scene for writer Lil Warren's creation, which melds aspects of early music hall entertainment with contemporary musical theatre.

Christina Tedders as Nellie and Susanna van den Berg as the chair in Oranges and Elephants
Photo credit - Sharron Wallace
Despite protestations some in-shown protestations, Oranges and Elephants' plot is your typical star crossed lovers shtick. Set against the backdrop of a bloody and vicious turf war, Mary, an aspiring music hall performer from the Black Country, falls in love with a musically inclined crook named Nellie, and the pair make plans to run away together and have a crack at show business. The only problem is that Mary has been taken in by the Oranges (a girl gang which prowls on north of the river), and Nellie is a prolific member of the Elephants (a wily rival group). Both gangs are made up of a madcap mix of miscreants, such as the newly one-eyed Nora, and Ada the scene stealing slasher, played by a gleefully menacing Rebecca Bainbridge. Sinead Long is likable in the interesting if underwritten role of Mary, opposite the entrancing Christina Tedders, who brings charm and gravitas to the role of Nellie, and shows off her musical virtuosity regularly throughout. 

The score is mostly music hall fare. It's fun and bouncy, if a little samey. At times, however, the songs seem to pastiche more contemporary musical theatre too. There are shades of Chicago’s I Can’t Do It Alone and Gypsy’s Let Me Entertain You, and even Epiphany from Sweeney Todd seems to be referenced). At the end of the musical the full cast also takes to the stage to perform an anachronistic rap, referencing the #TimesUp movement. The cast of actor-musicians perform vivaciously, with Christina Tedders in particular providing some gorgeously brassy vocals. The songs may not be instant classics, but they're all entertaining to listen to, and having the audience occasionally join in with the help of lyric sheets is an enjoyable addition to the proceedings. 

However, running at over 2 and a half hours, Oranges and Elephants could do with some tightening up. It's clear that Lil Warren has a great story to tell, and she is more than capable of writing some great, period appropriate tunes, but in its current iteration Oranges and Elephants doesn't quite hit the mark. At times the plot seems simultaneously rushed and meandering, with Nellie and Mary’s love story fired up and then extinguished in the space of just a couple of scenes, bookended by gang based antics. There's also a fair bit of funny but perhaps unneeded padding courtesy of the (admittedly very charismatic) host, played by Susannah van den Berg, whose banter with gin swigging pianist Doreen (Jo Collins)  brings the story to a halt rather frequently. 

At a time when powerful women are dominating the media, Oranges and Elephants feels like it's touching on something very clever, harking back to a time over 100 years ago when, like today, women bonded together to get things done. The real life ladies who inspired Lil Warren's fictional story are a fascinating facet of London history, and despite its weaker aspects, Oranges and Elephants should be praised for bringing them into the spotlight, even if in reality they were a lot less stab happy!