If you could have six guests from the past round for a meal, who would it be? It’s one of those games you play round the dinner table, isn’t it? Well at least it was until the embargo on having anyone visit your house was announced! Choices tend to be eclectic and so you might have Beethoven sitting next to Maggie Thatcher sitting next to Marco Polo (actually, only one of those would be my choice). Steve Carl McCasland’s play Little Wars starts with much the same premise but at least he has selected people who were all contemporaries and conceivably might have actually met.
The time is 1940 on the eve of the fall of France and ex-patriate American couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are awaiting the arrival of Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. It is in effect going to be a salon of the most famous female authors of the age. However, another expected guest turns up a day earlier than anticipated. This is Muriel Gardiner, a psychiatrist, who in reality is on a mission to rescue Jews from the concentration camps. She persuades her hosts to help out financially and then gradually enlists the economic help of all the others, most of whom are Jewish themselves. The final character, Bernadette, at first appears to be nothing more than a housekeeper/cook but as the play progresses it transpires that she is really central to the storyline – a German Jew rescued by Stein and Toklas and taken under their wing and who now faces a new threat when, inevitably, France surrenders to Germany.
McCasland’s script starts out as a witty comedy as the various writer’s exchange barbed insults. Stein and Hellman, particularly, do not get on, Toklas vainly tries to keep the peace, Christie uses her forensic skills to get to the heart of the matter and Parker just wants to have a good time (which in her book means copious alcohol). Gardiner is largely a silent observer as she watches the others engage in what Parker nominates as “little wars”. Her professional position as a psychiatrist means she finds the exchanges fascinating to watch. However, in the second half of the play they begin to understand that there is something more important in the world than their literary output. The tone darkens considerably, particularly when we learn the shocking details of Bernadette’s former life. In the face of her testimony the petty squabblings of the writers become totally insignificant.
A crack cast has been assembled for what is billed as a reading – though it is obviously a carefully rehearsed one. Linda Bassett and Catherine Russell provide a solid centre as hosts Stein and Toklas; the former clearly battling some inner demons as she tries to hold court. Sophie Thompson heads into Miss Marple territory as Agatha Christie but fortunately doesn’t end up being a caricature. Debbie Chazen as Dorothy Parker portrays the waspish wit for which the writer was renowned and also hints at the alcoholism which affected her in later life. I was a little disappointed by Juliet Stevenson as Lillian Hellman though the fault lay in the writing rather than the acting. The character seems somewhat underwritten and really only emerges to take centre stage in the last twenty minutes of the play; Stevenson herself gives, as expected, good value. Sarah Solemani makes Gardiner a still, restrained figure through most of the play but burns with passion when she describes her mission to save others. However, the standout performance probably comes from the least known member of the team. Natasha Karp’s Bernadette starts out as little more than the sort of bit part maid role which Noel Coward might have written. However, as more of the character’s past is revealed the actor comes into her own and we are hanging on her every word. Her description of her treatment at the hands of some German soldiers is really shocking and mesmerising at the same time.
Little Wars is rather a wordy play and thus works well in the recorded and edited Zoom version with which we are presented. Indeed, I’m not sure there would be a whole lot more to be added by seeing it on stage. It has all the makings of a good radio play (essentially Zoom performances are radio plays – with pictures) but which lacks real incident at the point of delivery. All the characters and indeed the world in which they live are facing a moment of crisis but talk in the first half is mostly what has already happened – why have Hellman and Stein fallen out, what happened to Christie when she suddenly disappeared for a while and so on. In the second half the discussion turns to what will happen once Gardiner gets into enemy territory and what is to happen about Bernadette. This leaves rather a gap in the middle ground where nothing is happening in the moment meaning the play loses some impetus. In essence there is too much telling and conjecturing as opposed to showing. That said, I learned quite a bit about the figures involved in this tale (and Gardiner’s is, no doubt, a fascinating story). The play also seems to be the perfect choice for the charity which it supports (Women For Refugee Women) and on that basis alone I wish it well.
Production photos by John Brannoch
Little Wars is available via the Union Theatre website – click here
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