“Peaky Blinders” meets “The Gangs of New York,” or London to be more precise, in Margo McDonald's award winning “The Elephant Girls,” produced by Canadian outfit Parry Riposte Productions. A tale of a gang of female thieves who terrorised London during the years surrounding World War I, “The Elephant Girls” is part revisionist history, part lesbian lust and love story. A fascinating and extraordinary tale that reopens a forgotten feminist chapter written out of history, “The Elephant Girls” is a story well worth the telling, but a story somewhat undermined by its telling.
In what appears to be an East End pub in 1937, former gang member and enforcer, Maggie Hale, recounts for the price of a pint or three, the how’s and the what’s of The Forty Elephants, a ‘roguish’ gang of so called reprobate women capable of making five grand shoplifting in fifteen minutes. Their queen, Alice Diamond, is a diamond in the rough of things, but her tough iron fist in its velvet glove takes good care of her and her girls, saving them from a life of poverty, whoring, slaving in a factory, or even worse, marriage. They may revolve in and out of prison, but always they live on their own terms. But when love comes calling, it may signal the end of everything for girls dressed as boys, and it all may end with a whimper rather than a bang.
In McDonald’s fractured script, narrative moves jumpily between past and present, between the history it successfully reveals and the love story it less successfully tells, all played out over a loose, three act structure. Efforts to convince that the events we’re hearing are horrific and terrifying don’t always land, often seeming to be trying a little too hard to sell it. McDonald’s portrayal of the enforcer, Maggie Hale, while an inspired idea, doesn’t inspire the fear, dread or sympathy Hale seems to embody on the page. Throughout, McDonald looks uncomfortably stiff and restricted, perhaps a result of the restrictions of the venue, with not enough of a threatening physical vocabulary, employing a semi-permanent squint that musters all the danger and menace of an elderly gentleman trying to read the newspaper. Vocally, Hale is also less about danger, seeming more a Cockney loud mouth, all boast and bluster, resulting in laughter at many of McDonald’s genuinely funny moments, as well as laughter at those that aren't funny. All of which director, Mary Ellis, should have addressed, as well as an over dependence on sipping beer in a manner that stunted flow and pace, looking like a performative prop rather than a prop for performance at times.
Like T.S. Eliot reading his own work, Margo McDonald, performing her own script, doesn’t quite do justice to some incredibly fine writing. While McDonald delivers a solid performance, a little too solid perhaps, there’s just not enough subtly to probe the depths and energy “The Elephant Girls” has to offer, or to make it truly felt. For behind its less successful love story, “The Elephant Girls” offers a truly fascinating depiction of women trying to live life on their own terms, in the face of incredible poverty and male driven danger, raising two fingers and a defiant fist to a world whose restrictive rules they’re not prepared to play by.
“The Elephant Girls” by Margo McDonald, produced by Parry Riposte Productions, runs at The Outhouse, Capel Street, until May 13th as part of The International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.
For more information, visit IDGTF