Little Wars

(L-R) Catherine Russell, Sarah Solemani, Linda Basset, Natasha Karp, Juliet Stevenson, Sophie Thompson, and Debbie Chazen, Little Wars (Credit John Brannoch)
Little Wars
Image credit: John Brannoch

Made in collaboration with The Union Theatre, Ginger Quiff Media have put together a rehearsed reading of Steven Carl McCasland’s play Little Wars, which will raise much-needed funds for Women For Refugee Women. Having previously been workshopped Off-Off-Broadway, this is the play’s digital première. It revolves around an imaginary all-female dinner party, set at the home of Gertrude Stein & Alice Toklas in France in 1940; the Second World War is in full swing, people are being shipped off to concentrations camps, and Germany is on the verge of occupying France.

The slightly quirky party is made up of Stein & Toklas, their housekeeper Bernadette, psychiatrist ‘Mary’, and writers Agatha Christie, Lillian Hellman & Dorothy Parker – the latter pair were invited by Christie, not knowing that there is history between Stein & Hellman. ‘Mary’ (in actual fact Muriel Gardiner) shouldn’t be there either; she was due to arrive the following day to collect a donation from Stein towards her passport fund for escaping Jews (& other people persecuted under the Nazi regime), but her plans had to change – against her better judgement she accepted the offer of hospitality, however she hadn’t reckoned on Christie being a bit of a sleuth herself…

The rehearsed reading has become the go-to method for much online theatre, being the easiest way to circumvent a lack of time, space & resources; obviously any theatre is good news, but after the dynamism & excitement of live readings (with projects such as The Show Must Go Online evolving into near-full productions) a recorded rehearsed reading is perhaps a bit on the underwhelming side. The graphics are nice – reminding us that we are in a writers’ world – and it is immensely helpful having the stage directions appear onscreen every now & then, though for accessibility reasons these should really be read out as well. It would also mean that it could function fully as a radio play, as there isn’t really anything other than the stage directions that you need to pay attention to on the visual side of things.

It is a work of fiction, so obviously events in the play shouldn’t be taken as all being historical fact, though the view it takes of collaborator & Pétain fan Gertrude Stein does seem to be rose-tinted at best (maybe more in the line of wishful thinking). She does make it clear that she won’t be forced out of Paris, so a definite suggestion that she would go down the self-preservation route – and would she go to those lengths only to risk everything by linking herself to escaping anti-Fascists or Jews? It’s interesting to ponder, anyhow.

There are some interesting discussions over what women have to contend with in their everyday lives and the work environment, though it is a little clunky in places (for me it doesn’t always come across as a woman’s voice, more a man’s impression of that). The squabbling and attempts at one-upmanship quickly get tedious, dragging the running time out rather than being particularly witty. The most engaging section by far is when housemaid Bernadette is given the chance to tell her story, horrifying though it is; a plea to people’s humanity and an insight into what some individuals have to endure & escape from. Natasha Karp’s performance really stands out here.

Linda Bassett, Debbie Chazen, Catherine Russell, Sarah Solemani, Juliet Stevenson & Sophie Thompson make up the rest of the cast – the presence of these stellar actors definitely elevates the reading (who wouldn’t want to see Thompson as the Queen of Crime?), but doesn’t stop it from feeling like there’s something missing. A great cause to address, however, and a wonderful platform on which to do it; at a time where hatred seems to be the new norm (whether antisemitism, homophobia, or literally anything else), narratives like these are more important than ever.

Juliet Stevenson, Little Wars (Credit John Brannoch)
Little Wars
Image credit: John Brannoch

My verdict? An interesting & timely story to tell, though it does drag in places – Natasha Karp’s recounting of Bernadette’s painful experiences is particularly moving.

Rating: 3*

Little Wars is available to stream until 3 December 2020. Tickets are available online – you can upgrade to include five episodes of ‘Open Creative Process’ (providing insight into the process of creating digital theatre) for an extra £8.

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