Writer: Steven Carl McCasland
Director: Hannah Chissick
Theatrical gameplaying with alternative forks of real history gives a production two major opportunities: a chance to frame a story or point of view in a familiar context for the audience, and a chance to give an engaging portrait of historical figures. Little Wars’ mix of fact and fiction goes hard on both, and produces an intriguing and emotionally vibrant main story alongside defined impressions of some key literary figures of the 20th century. A lot of the impact is likely lost from a full production with this rehearsed reading, but the key ideas and themes shine through.
We’re in the middle of June, 1940, in the writer Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s house in the French alps. The country is on the cusp of surrender to the German forces, and the two ladies are hosting a dinner party, or salon, for talented friends. As the women arrive and settle in, and as the maid Bernadette serves drinks, old rivalries, egos and barbs begin to make themselves known. With tension mounting, the reason the non-literary world guest is there becomes apparent – a spy who works tirelessly bringing persecuted jews from Germany to America and safety has made a cash collection stop. This revelation, and others, rocks the high ideas of the assembled guests, forcing engagement with current atrocities in real terms and forcing a choice between action or spectatorship.
Without the planned accompaniments to the script like a set, stage, lighting, movement, sound, costume, the production suffers. While it’s sustained by the quality of the writing, and the performance of the seven actors, as well as the tension between the literary and the lived life, it’s just not engaging enough as a digital play, nor has it been adapted to being an audio only, or radio style, production. It’s both too easy, and too difficult to speculate on what might have been if these seven actors had been given full range of motion, or the crew had a chance to shine.
As we have it, each of the seven work within their restrictive frames to show distinct personalities, conveying nuance and variance with skill. As Alice Toklas, Catherine Russell is a quiet but fiercely strong, admirably vulnerable woman. Juliet Stevenson as Lillian Hellman is, as Linda Bassett’s Gertrude Stein would call her, a bitch – though a likable one. The rude and very dislikable Agatha Christie, played by Sophie Thompson sticks as a barb in the flow of this production – god help those who encountered someone like this in real life.
With changes to planned productions this year completely understandable, it’s still tough to get used to. The story, and these performers, can do much better and a play script adapted or augmented for audio only would have provided the accessories to accentuate all the good that’s on show here. Nevertheless, they achieve a fine result in the face of difficulty, and bring out some tender and inspirational moments based in reality.
Available here until 8 November