Writer: Madelaine Beevers
Director: Emma Williamson
Reviewer: Georgina Newman
Alice ‘Diamond’ Hughes, so-called because of her propensity to wear large diamond rings on her fingers as ready-made knuckle-dusters, was the enigmatic leader of a 1950’s all-female London gang of shoplifters and thieves. Revered and feared in equal measure by her loyal members The Forty Thieves, this production is a fictional exploration of an evening in the life of Alice and her followers, an imagining of the world in which she moved, and the trappings of that world.
A site-specific production, and a fitting one too – above an East End boozer – Director Emma Williamson has managed to maximise the dramatic effect of a large cast in a limited, if awkward, performance space. Artistic Director of Skin of Our Teeth Theatre Company (SOOT), Madelaine Beevers, has not only written the play, but also stares in the title rôle of Alice. The playscript is not over-indulgent but straight and direct, terse, accented by the colloquialisms of post-War cockney and the fighting talk expected of this sort of set-up. Everyone’s highly suspicious of one another’s motives so tensions always run high, setting the tone for unpredictability and self-preservation.
The story unravels slowly in the first half, preferring to set the mood. Maud has just returned to the gang after a six month spell in prison, and the other gang members congregate to celebrate her release. Meanwhile Dolly, the serial seducer and blackmailer, has recently been shot dead. The cliffhanger-ending of the first half makes for a more complicated but well-thought out second half in which duplicity is exposed and the ever-present potential for violence and retribution becomes a reality.
The word to describe Beevers’ performance is understated. Stilled but quietly fearsome, she exudes an air of silent authority, softly-spoken, an expert in her field of chosen occupation, and her reputation precedes her. It must be the best approach in which to play the late Alice Hughes, but one assumes the real-life version may not have appeared quite so inward and measured. It’s a strong and canny central performance. Katie Pearl’s portrayal of the beehive-haired Dolly complements that of Alice. Both can call someone’s death in an order, but Dolly does so with tremor and unsteadiness; Alice is always in control. Pearl manages to inject the rôle with naivety as well as ruthlessness, and it’s an interesting dynamic within the context of the play.
This production does SOOT credit, but it still doesn’t quite live up to its billing. The promise of snatching a real glimpse into the life of a formerly notorious East End gang seems thrilling, but the outcome is slightly less so. This is not to say the production fails, but it could be sharper, edgier, and more internalised. The viewpoint/inner world of Alice is not explored properly – she’s someone we care nothing about so her presence on stage seems little more than superficial brutality. It’s not quite gritty or involved enough to pass as really inventive theatre, but given the original idea, it’s a step in the right direction.