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Review: Oranges and Elephants (Hoxton Hall)

Susie McKenna directs Lil Warren and Jo Collins musical about Victorian girl gangs

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Girl Gangs of Old London – that's the jist of Lil Warren's music hall musical. Taking her lead from the real-life all-female Victorian street gang The Forty Elephants, believed to have operated since the late 1700s, Warren spins a classic melodrama out of a testosterone-free turf war. But while it's intended as a corrective to the history books, Oranges and Elephants' stock form means it replicates old tropes rather than reshaping them to fit its feminist aims.

From either side of the Thames, two gangs size each other up. The Elephants boss the south from their Walworth Road base. A tight-knit Irish family led by Liz Kitchen's hard-nut matriarch Annie, they're driven by the wily, swaggering Nellie (Christina Tedders). Staring them down across London Bridge, their invented rivals The Oranges are a ramshackle gaggle of off-the-hook psychos under the thumb of the tyrannical Flo (Kate Adams).

Warren takes dramatic licence by reminding us that history tends to remember criminals that get themselves caught (though Jack the Ripper somewhat scuppers that theory). By dressing the Oranges up in male drag – buttoned-up waistcoats and Clockwork Orange-style bowlers – she makes them that much more invisible. This is, in part, the story of their disappearance, despite the bloody trail left by the deranged hoodlum Ada (Rebecca Bainbridge).

Into the midst of this melee, Warren drops a quaint runaway: Mary (Sinead Long), a former scullery maid with a bag full of stolen silver and head full of dreams of music hall stardom. Taken in by the Oranges, she becomes their leader's pretty plaything – making her leverage in a citywide war.

There's a lovely sense of London's history at play – a mark of Warren's time in the archives. Sara Perks' twist on the old music hall set-up turns a vintage street map into a front curtain, and Susannah van den Berg's red-coated emcee talks us through the town. With a fine operatic voice and glinting relish for smut, she's lively enough to get us singing along to music hall staples.

Mostly, however, musical and music hall tread on one another's toes; the form breaking the story up into stop-start set pieces, while Jo Collins' ballad-heavy (and frankly forgettable) score lacks the variety that vaudeville dearly needs. There's a neat genderblind twist on "The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery", but the score only comes alive with a last-minute encore – a tumbling #TimesUp rap that, finally, raises the roof.

It does sit oddly though, after a story that argues women are just as cutthroat and predatory as men. Susie McKenna's game cast leap into their gangster stereotypes with gusto and it's a pleasure to see women embracing the sort of twitchy psychotics and dead-eyed nut-jobs that make mob films so moreish. However, Warren falls into stock male formations when the history books suggest something else. The Forty Elephants had their own distinctly female style of street crime.

Their leader, Diamond Annie, was named after the glinting rings that gave an extra edge to her punch and its members would routinely pose as housemaids before raiding their bosses' rooms. Perks' handsome costumes reflect the fashionable fineries they got themselves up in – hitched skirts and hooped stockings make them look like swashbuckling lady pirates – but Warren's script more or less wants to be Goodfellas with a Victorian twist.

Oranges and Elephants runs at Hoxton Hall until 10 February.