We are in France, at the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, and the stage is set for a very strange dinner party. Steven Carl McCasland has written a piece which brings secrets and feuds to a head on the eve of the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. The guests are writers Agatha Christie, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, and anti-fascist fighter Muriel Gardiner.
Clearly, as this is a reading, we are just watching talking heads with no set dressing, but this soon ceases to matter – in Hannah Chissick’s tight direction the story is the thing, and these women are full of strength and fire. Watched by the maid of the Toklas-Stein house, Bernadette, the alcohol flows, literary pretensions are exchanged, and the real threat to the Jewish people of Europe is a clear undertone to what seems on the surface to be an everyday conversation. “It is not easy being a American Jew in France”, says Stein.
Look up Gardiner’s real story and you find she was both psychiatrist and writer, who helped hundreds escape persecution and certain death. She may have been the inspiration and original of Hellman’s Julia, and this is where the genesis of Little Wars comes from. It is a mix of fact and fiction, and we cannot be sure what really happened, but in McCasland’s script the argument is persuasive.
The language is extremely challenging in places, and very funny in others. This is a world where women can make a difference, and bond together, despite their obvious differences. Although there is tension in the air, and there is a mood of impending doom throughout Little Wars, it is also extremely entertaining, and all the performances are on point.
Linda Bassett and Catherine Russell as marvellous as “the lesbians”, with a shared understanding and unspoken love. Juliet Stevenson’s Hellman is gloriously straightforward with a touch of vulnerability; while Debbie Chazen brings a ditzy confidence to the role of Dorothy Parker. Sarah Solemani is still, quiet and steely as Muriel Gardiner. Sophie Thompson is a slightly exaggerated Agatha Christie, full of British faux politeness (“couldn’t we please change the subject to something less depressing”); while Natasha Karp is still and ghostly as Bernadette, the German Jew playing housekeeper.
Running at close to two hours, Little Wars pulls in so many themes including lesbianism (Hellman’s celebrated play The Children’s Hour had just been written), Judaism, intolerance, escapism, intolerance, and sisterhood. It does not touch on Stein’s alleged later collaboration with the Vichy government in France (she remained in residence in the country during Nazi occupation, and died in 1946), but this is simply a point in time, and both assistance with freedom fighters and collusion to save self could be true.
Little Wars is available through Ginger Quiff Media at http://www.littlewars.co.uk/ until 3 December 2020. Each purchase gives access to the reading for 24 hours from 10am, and tickets cost £12, in support of Women for Refugee Women.
The show is produced by Thomas Hopkins & Michael Quinn for Ginger Quiff Media in association with Bailey Harris Kelly and Guy Chapman, in collaboration with the Union Theatre.
LouReviews received complimentary access to review Little Wars.
Image credit: John Brannock