The opening number is a front-of-curtain belter. Four women in ragged gowns brandish finger cymbals, guitar, accordion and washboard. They are disarrayed, dishevelled and, if their enthusiastic encomiums to “gin, gin, gin” are anything to go by, thoroughly disreputable. One of their less scabrous couplets pairs “nasty tumour” with “sense of humour” – you get the tone. This new musical from the freshly paired duo, writer April De Angelis and composer Lucy Rivers (with shared credits for lyrics), brazenly delivers what the publicity promises: “a booze-soaked love ballad from the women of Gin Lane” – think Cabaret relocated to Hogarth’s 18th-century London, with added vim and sharper bite.
Curtain rise reveals a skeletal, two-level set. Designer Hayley Grindle’s assemblage of scaffolding bars draped with ropes, and darkened-alleyway lighting by Jack Knowles, goosebumpingly evoke another kind of scaffold. Tinkling Handelian keyboard and strings introduce counterpoints musical and moral: a pair of bewigged, frock-coated men sing the praises of beer, condemn the vice of gin – they’re former dramatist and novelist turned licensing-laws-enforcing magistrate Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni) and his brother, John (Peter Pearson), wrily observed by sister Sarah, also a novelist (Rachel Winters).
De Angelis and Rivers out-satirise both Hogarth and Fielding, skewering hypocrisies social, political, religious – and artistic – by unsentimentally setting out situations endured by women good, bad, wronged and heroic. Their characters are not restricted to types; instead, each kaleidoscopes a range of qualities over different stages of the action: outcast servant Mary (Aruhan Galieva), now respectably married to Fielding; tough, cross-dressing, soft-centred Lydia/Jack (Paksie Vernon); wits-wandering resurrection queen Moll (Debbie Chazen); hard-nosed, lovelorn tavern-keeper Evelyn (Paula James); sinister, desperate Suki (Rosalind Ford).
The cast and creative team are terrific, a true ensemble that, under, Michael Oakley’s direction, serves up the musical’s mix of darkness and humour in just the right measures of raucous fun with splashes of sweetness and a dash of bitter.