Written by two women, with six female actors outnumbering a pair of male counterparts, and featuring an authentic narrative from the boozy ladies of Gin Lane in the first half of the 18th century, Gin Craze! shouts its sisterhood credentials from the rooftops. Reviewed here by a man, it's true, but there's not much I can do about that, I'm afraid.
Any new British musical should be warmly welcomed in these difficult Covid times, and especially so if it seeks to tell an original story not based on some pre-existing "property" such as a book, play or 1980s teen movie. Playwright April De Angelis, tackling her first musical with composer and fellow debutant Lucy Rivers, plumbs history for her material, peppering the invented core story with historically accurate gems.
Thus we learn that George II's Queen Caroline was instrumental in opposition to the gin craze that swept Britain in the 1730s; novelist Henry Fielding was really a Westminster magistrate at the height of the crackdown on the home-brewed booze; and the Bow Street Runners – the precursor to our modern police force – were created at least in part to tackle the problem.
De Angelis cleverly uses historical parallels to reveal modern resonances. Misogyny disguised as morality is rampant, hypocrisy is endemic – particularly among the ruling classes – and women get a raw deal in almost every circumstance. Her playwright's instincts are strongly in evidence and offer some of the most powerful moments.
What's less successful is the musical side of things. While the eight-strong cast complement their acting with singing, dancing and playing a plethora of musical instruments, the songs too frequently feel tacked on, rather than springing integrally from the action. It's hard to shake off the thought that this would have worked perfectly well – and possibly much better – as a straight play.
Given the material to work with, however, those eight work their socks off, playing multiple roles as well as multiple instruments. Aruhan Galieva nominally holds the narrative together as the servant girl with a past whose marriage to the aforementioned Fielding is constantly under threat from exposure. Rosalind Ford and Rachel Winters sing and act superbly as a treacherous street girl and Fielding's sister respectively, while Debbie Chazen shamelessly steals the show with fantastic turns as Queen Caroline and the gin-crazed drunk Moll.
Hayley Grindle's spare set, split over two levels with bare scaffolding and a minimum of props, accentuates the grimness of the Gin Lane location. Michael Oakley's direction is functional rather than spectacular, while choreographer Paul Isaiah Isles borrows freely from a variety of theatrical styles. The content may be generally pretty dark, and the show tonally never quite sure where to place itself, but there's no denying the fascinating historical context and the obvious intention to bring something boldly distaff to the stage. I can't quite see it becoming the next Six, but I am a man: what do I know?