Gin Craze! review – a bawdy feminist history lesson with anarchic spirit

Gin Craze! enacts a lesser-remembered piece of 18th-century social history in which the culture wars between the governing elite and the working classes were fought out through the consumption of gin. Long before Gordon’s rendered it a refined drink, working women worshipped gin for its apparently divine properties. This earthy, raucous and heartwarming musical centres on the women of Gin Lane – selling “genever” and intent on defying the prohibitive Gin Act of 1751 to assert their economic freedoms.

The main focus is on gin-sellers Mary (Aruhan Galieva) and Lydia (Paksie Vernon), the latter dressed as “Jack” to give them greater legitimacy, but their wider posse includes drunks and sex workers, with every actor shining in their part and each character made grittily lovable. Their story is woven in with the real-life figure of Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni), the novelist and magistrate who, with his half-brother John Fielding (Peter Pearson), founded the Bow Street Runners. Their sister Sarah (Rachel Winters) also features as a buttoned-up do-gooder with a lesbian past while Queen Caroline (the German wife to George II played by Debbie Chazen) turns up in satirical interludes to speak in a fantastic English and German mashup and spout hypocrisies on the dangers of drink.

With a book and lyrics by April De Angelis and music and lyrics by Lucy Rivers, this is a slow-burn satire cum gender-bending adventure and lesbian love story, wrapped up in one. It begins haltingly, with some thin songs and over-simplistic lyrics, but grows in anarchic spirit with its bar-room insurrections and its delightfully unrestrained bawdiness: “I felt that in my fanny flaps,” says the streetwalker and sop Moll (Chazen doubling up brilliantly), after her first swig of gin.

Directed by Michael Oakley, with a set designed by Hayley Grindle as an airy, two-tiered scaffold structure, the show comes fully to life in the second half, the jokes more ribald, the atmosphere that of cabaret.

There is an underlying message about the unwritten stories of working-class women and it has resonances of Emilia in its untold history and rousing feminism but it is earthier, dirtier, more drunken.

Not all of the ballads work but the music gets your feet tapping while the voices are uniformly strong. One song, The Problem of (Not) Having a Cock, in which Jack reveals “his” secret, sung in parallel with Mary and Henry’s romance, is worth the ticket.

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