Gertrude Stein and her girlfriend Alice B Tolkas are hosting a dinner party with guests including anti-fascist freedom fighter Murial Gardiner not to mention Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. While this may be a literary enthusiast’s (somewhat odd) dream, it’s also the premise for Little Wars, a play by Steven Carl McCasland.
This rehearsed reading of McCasland’s play, a collaboration between Ginger Quiff Media and Southwark’s Union Theatre, is set in the French alps in 1940, just as the Nazi invasion of the country is underway, and features an all-star female cast including Juliet Stevenson, Sophie Thompson, Catherine Russell and Linda Bassett. As the dinner party gets underway and the alcohol flows, personalities clash and insults are thrown while dark secrets soon come to light.
Directed by Hannah Chissick, the reading has been filmed over zoom (with editing from John Walsh Brannock), with the actresses isolated in their individual homes and a few props to hand. This format allows the story to shine through, and it’s certainly a riveting one. The play combines comedy and heartache to great effect; the humorous first half filled with dry humour and witty insults soon gives way to a more sobering conclusion as the women discuss the plight of Jews during the Second World War, with focus on Tolkas and Stein’s German Housemaid Bernadette and the work of Gardiner. Though the play is set in the 1940s the themes are still painfully relevant in today’s society, with antisemitism, homophobia and misogyny explored between the women. While background knowledge of the characters may be a bonus, it’s not essential, though you’ll certainly want to read up on each of the women after watching.
The exceptional cast do not disappoint, and the bonus of this rehearsed reading is that the audience can admire the sheer talent on show without any distractions. It is a joy to see the women on screen, and despite them being separated they work incredibly well together. Catherine Russell brings warmth and patience to the character of Alice, often the peacekeeper and the sweet to Stein’s sometimes sour demeanour. As Stein, Linda Bassett excels; she delivers each insult to her peers with razor sharp wit but has a sensitive side when it’s needed. Debbie Chazen likewise does a brilliant job as the seemingly giddy Dorothy Parker, and it’s her heart-wrenching revelation towards the end of the play that is one of the more touching moments. Juliet Stevenson is a super addition to any cast and is delightfully aloof as Lillian Hellman. Meanwhile Sophie Thompson almost steals the show as Agatha Christie, looking like an echo of Miss Marple with her hat and glasses. Her comic timing is spot on, and she delivers every line with precision. Likewise Sarah Solemani’s confident Muriel belongs in one of Christie’s novels as she quizzes each of the other characters to find out their stories and beliefs. Natasha Karp also puts in a strong performance as Bernadette, a somewhat ghostly, quiet creature lurking in the background until it’s time to tell her story.
If there’s a downside it’s that as a rehearsed reading the production doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch via zoom as it would a live performance. At almost two hours long with heavy dialogue and little action there is a danger it lags at times. But this is a very timely and important play, and thoroughly deserves to be brought back as a full-scale production when theatres do reopen, if only to see the actors interacting with one another in the same room. With a fantastic cast, a script full of wit and a poignant story which certainly resonates in these troubled times, Little Wars is an important and sobering play which is not to be missed. Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve seen of it.
Little Wars is available to stream until 3 December. The proceeds of this rehearsed reading go to Women for Refugee Women.
Photo credit: John Brannoch