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Little Wars – Ginger Quiff Media | Review

There are narrative points in this production of Little Wars that are highly contrived. It doesn’t help (although it is billed as a reading in any event) that it visually takes the form of a Zoom meeting, such that apart from a few stage directions on display there is not much to look at beyond facial expressions. But perhaps the front room setting even in a full production may not need much in the way of scenery, and the show’s epilogue gives considerable closure to what happened to the characters in the years following this meeting of minds in the French Alps.

Little Wars - Ginger Quiff Media

Set on the evening of 22nd June 1940 in the country home of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) (Linda Bassett) and her partner Alice Toklas (1877-1967) (Catherine Russell), Stein has invited Agatha Christie (1890-1976) (Sophie Thompson) around to dinner (as you do). Christie has, in turn, invited a couple of friends to join her, Dorothy Parker (1896-1967) (Debbie Chazen) and Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) (Juliet Stevenson). Stein is horrified, dismissing Hellman as a ‘bitch’, later launching into a highly negative appraisal of Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, mostly for its portrayal of women and lesbians in (in her view) a bad light.

It seems credible enough that a group of writers getting together would at some point dissect works of literature (Conan Doyle and Ernest Hemingway are name-dropped into the dialogue, amongst others). But the conversation becomes much broader thanks to the presence of two others, Muriel Gardiner (1901-1985) (Sarah Solemani), and Bernadette (Natasha Karp), the former a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who had a key role in the Austrian socialist movement, and the latter Stein and Toklas’ housekeeper. Hellman is at once condescending towards Bernadette, yelling her drinks order as if the Earth were to stop spinning on its own axis if it wasn’t served immediately. Stein retaliates, pouring the contents of Hellman’s glass over her dress. Well, I found it amusing anyway.

One way or another, the true intentions of Gardiner’s presence in France during the Second World War become known, which irrevocably changes the conversation, and arguably even the lives of those in it. There are points at which the show comes across as the kind of discussion that would be rather more engaging as a participant rather than a passive observer. There’s a decent amount of personal detail given, which makes the show accessible for those not already familiar with the writers’ backstories, and it also breaks up the narrative so that it is not a relentless dissection of the Third Reich, anti-Semitism and what it is to be Jewish and lesbian in a world that does not exactly bend over backwards to be welcoming to either group.

Despite the passing of time, some of what transpires, and the themes drawn out, retain much relevance to today, particularly when the ladies discuss what level of individual and collective responsibilities there are towards fellow human beings, and whether one’s own contribution really makes much difference in the grand scheme of things. It starts off rather slowly, but the audience’s patience is ultimately rewarded in a story that becomes as empathetic as it is fractious.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Featuring critically-acclaimed performances from Linda Bassett and Juliet Stevenson, the compelling production of Little Wars brought together an incredible all-star female cast, including Debbie Chazen, Natasha Karp, Catherine Russell, Sarah Solemani and Sophie Thompson, directed by Hannah Chissick. The streaming raised over £7,500 for Women For Refugee Women during its initial run. This incredible charity continues to support women in need during this difficult time.

Little Wars unites literary figureheads Gertrude Stein (Bassett), her girlfriend Alice Toklas (Russell), Dorothy Parker (Chazen), Lillian Hellman (Stevenson) and Agatha Christie (Thompson), with anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner (Solemani), in this deliciously comic and touching drama about the power of coming together for a shared cause. Tensions are high and secrecy lingers in the air, but with libations flowing and the threat of World War II looming the guests are close to boiling point.

1st – 14th February 2021


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