Little Wars

Steven Carl McCasland
Union Theatre and Ginger Quiff Media

Little Wars Credit: Ginger Quiff Media

You cannot fault the ambition of Ginger Quiff Media, who have collaborated with the Union Theatre to create this 1 hour 50 minute rehearsed Zoom reading under the direction of Hannah Chissick. They have matched a group of seven memorable ladies from both sides of the Atlantic with a starry cast led by Juliet Stevenson and Linda Bassett.

The drama commences in 1940 with a set-up reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, except that the female visitors impudently invited by Agatha Christie (Sophie Thompson) to an alcohol-fuelled dinner party at the French home of heavily opinionated Gertrude Stein (Linda Bassett) and the more emollient Alice B Toklas (Catherine Russell) are all contemporary.

Once complete, in addition to the trio mentioned above, the guest list includes Dorothy Parker (Debbie Chazen), Lillian Hellman (Juliet Stevenson) and the lesser-known Muriel Gardner (Sarah Solemani), an earnest American version of a Resistance fighter. In addition, exposition and considerably more is added by the home team’s rescued domestic servant, Bernadette (Natasha Karp), whose history becomes central to the plot.

Ahead of the main party, a mysterious American psychiatrist calling herself Mary arrives by appointment to receive funding for a mission to rescue Jewish women and children from the Nazis. On hearing that some writers are arriving, she accepts an invitation to stay.

What would have been a feisty event anyway is spiced up considerably by touchy Gertrude Stein’s barely hidden antipathy towards Lillian Hellman, which at one point spills over into physical action. It may well be a good reflection of the characters and connections of those present, but there can rarely have been an evening when more names were dropped than is the case during Steven Carl McCasland’s play.

While much of the conversation is inevitably about literature, some of the most significant debating takes place between pseudonymous Mary, who is passionate about the fate of the Jewish people, and Agatha Christie, a Holocaust denier and nowhere near the intellectual heights of her fellows. Mrs Christie is also a novelist, which helpfully gives her licence to be intrusively inquisitive and tease out opinions, life stories and prejudices from her companions, although the others are almost equally nosy at times.

As the women enjoy their drunken verbal duelling and feuding, Dorothy Parker decides that she would like to listen to some music and, within seconds, Marshall Petain announces that he is surrendering thus putting France under Nazi control. Given that almost all of those present have Jewish blood running in their veins, this is devastating news and requires instant action, despite Gertrude Stein’s reluctance and disbelief.

Little Wars is extremely well acted but the plotting and dialogue can seem somewhat contrived, designed more to fit and advance a desperately moving and worthwhile story than truly mimic real life.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher