Elephant Girls is an entertaining, gender-bending piece of theatre, on stage in Toronto
In post war era London, an all female gang called the Forty Elephants were notorious for theft and extortion. Now Margo MacDonald, as both playwright and performer, brings them to life in in Elephant Girls, onstage at Red Sandcastle theatre as part of The Wilde Festival.
With intimidating poise and a sly script that balances between understated pathos and thrilling adventure, MacDonald’s show is sure to please anyone with an interest in history, queerness, or just an entertaining seventy minutes in the theatre.
The staging is spare–simply a table littered with partially drunk pints–when our protagonist Maggie Hale enters. She is dapperly dressed in a suit and fedora, carrying a cane. As she speaks–setting the year as 1937 and the location a pub–we understand that her apparel is particularly subversive for a woman, and that she is about to get drunk and spill her story.
My companion did not feel that he understood the time period off the top. I knew what the play was about going in, but he lacked that context and felt he didn’t get the picture until the point where Maggie is drawing out the catchment areas of the local London gangs in the air, which was a fine bit of historical and physical comedy.
My only concerns with the show were a bit with a switchblade–that was nowhere near as smooth and scary as one would expect from an experienced criminal–and Maggie’s characterization of the gang’s leader, Alice Diamond. Throughout the play we form an increasingly clear picture of Alice as powerful and authoritative, but when Maggie takes on her voice it’s that of a cackling harridan, more insinuating than imperious, more crone than queen.
Even with this seeming incongruence, MacDonald’s stage presence is mighty. She delivers her words to an unseen character who arrives at the pub three days in a row in order to solicit her story. MacDonald’s reactions gave me a strong picture of this person’s demeanor and motive, though I did wish that his placement in the audience was consistent within each of the three sections; or perhaps I just wish he was more often positioned in my area, as MacDonald’s face in action is a pleasure to watch.
Her expressions are a key factor in communicating both her love of Alice, and her relationship with gender expression when recounting how Alice cut her hair and suggested she wear trousers. Maggie is big and bad, complex and cunning, not at all to be trusted and yet hard not to love.
The show is going on tour to the UK, including to the Elephant and Castle area where the gang originated. I’m interested to see what reviews come out of there, but in my opinion, this is a delightful evening that celebrates the past and present of the toughness of women.
- Elephant Girls plays at Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen East, until February 25
- Showtimes are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm with a matinee Saturday at 2 pm
- Tickets range from $18 to $25
- Purchase tickets at (416) 845-9411 or online
Photo provided by the company