Madame Geneva | Review
Lyric Theatre, Belfast • Saturday 20 May 2017
By John Patrick Higgins
On the 27th of February 1734 Judith Defour, an alcoholic throwster, a person who twists silk into yarn, took her two year old daughter out of the workhouse. The previous week the workhouse superintendant had given the child, Mary, a set of new clothes. Defour stripped the child and strangled her, leaving her body in a ditch. Defour then sold the clothes for a shilling and a groat (about 7pence) and spent the money on gin. Defour is immortalised in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” as a blithe sot not noticing as her baby slips from her lap and falls to its death. Defour confessed to her crime and blamed the throttling of her child on a friend named Sukey. Jo Egan, in her barnstorming new play, lays the blame directly at the feet of Madame Geneva, the hissing, avaricious personification of the Gin Craze, wonderfully realised by Kerri Quinn.
This is a fantastically ambitious piece of writing: fiery, bawdy, angry and unashamed of its own intelligence. The dialogue rattles out of the characters who are numerous and diverse. Only Madame Geneva herself is permanent: a prowling, insinuating presence or a societal whipping girl. This is an extraordinarily physical role for Quinn: she is manhandled, tied up or slithering across the floor, and yet she never misses a note – oh, did I mention? Madame Geneva is a musical too!
Lisa Dunne’s costume for Geneva is a remarkable cocktail of teals and dragonfly greens, seemingly dismantled and reconfigured throughout the play depending on Geneva’s status in society. That it resembles a bottle of Bombay Sapphire is no coincidence! It seems robustly made too, which is for the best – Geneva is put through the ringer. Let’s hope it lasts the run!
The rest of the cast are fantastic as well: Tony Flynn’s preening King Billy in his skimpy orange towel is an obvious highlight and he camps it up brilliantly as a sauna-house Bond villain. He wants to set up a bank based on the enormous taxes levied from the gin boom – a dissipated liaison between Madame Geneva and The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street!
John Cronin’s Walpole is a fey satyr, lisping and cavorting with Geneva and running rings around his advisors. Keith Singleton gets the biggest laughs exploding with outrage, as gin sodden wenches – from the Covent Garden, no less – place their hands upon his person! His is a rolling tide of period perfect invective – Egan never loses her ear for authentic, antic language. It is to the credit of the performers that we never lose sight of the humanity of the piece however arcane the phraseology.
What we also never lose sight of is that, however well intentioned the reformers are, what we are left with is four men talking about the problem of women. There is a direct correlation to the explosion of widely available, seemingly inexhaustible alcohol, and the opening of the first Magdalen Home for Penitent Prostitutes. That men also drank and fell into destitution is not addressed by society. As ever it is women who are to be blamed and then saved – by men. They do this by working all day, surrendering their identity, meeting no one’s gaze and adopting a downcast expression. No wonder gin looked so inviting!
Cara Kelly’s direction is full of effects and incredibly detailed: this is a large cast – there are twelve people in the Macha Ensemble alone, and yet none of them feel wasted, there is always something for them to do. During the choral scenes the actors tilt and whirl like waltzers; a human melee, all shawls, mob caps and cleavage.
It doesn’t all work. I’m always wary of actors assaying a bit of hip hop in a play and it didn’t come off here. Oddly, there is a rave scene (of course there is a rave scene!) and I had no problem with that at all. Maybe, because it’s such an apt metaphor for the haziness of the gin craze, and maybe because it seems so long ago that it doesn’t seem anachronistic now: the South Sea Bubble and taking E in a field are now both just pieces of history, whereas hip hop remains a vital, living thing.
This is a fine play and a wonderful production. It is funny and sexy as well as moving and, gasp, informative. In less certain hands this could have been unremittingly bleak – there are no laughs in the story of Judith Defour. But Egan has found space in this sprawling narrative for strong comic set pieces and crackling wit.