Words by Lucy Mounfield / Pics by Patrick Boland
I can’t think of better way to mourn the end of August than by doing what’s best on a wonderful summer’s eve – drinking, laughing and having a good time. Thankfully, Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin, performed at The Old Joint Stock Theatre, allowed me to do just that.
Indeed, gin is enjoying a renaissance. In recent years gin drinking has spread everywhere from the hipster burger bars to music festivals, becoming synonymous with the joie de vivre outlook on life.
However, this hasn’t always been the case. Tapping into gin’s darker past, co-creators Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood take on the role of two cabaret ‘broads’ exploring the spirits politically charged origins. Here I need to confess, I often shy away from audience interaction. If you suffer from the same disposition, do not be afraid: Marsden and Wood’s infectious thirst for fun is a fantastic tonic.
From the moment I stepped into the small theatre at The Old Joint Stock I was greeted with the two female performers and their accompanist Tom Dickens, already on stage laughing and joking whilst swigging from bottles of the good stuff. Immediately the three had a competition going to sing the most inventive and humorous gin-pun infused songs. Some cracking ones were Madonna’s ‘Like a Vir-gin’ and Christina Aguilera’s ‘Ginny in a Bottle’.
The three performers have obvious chemistry and rapport, which was showcased in their rendition of the musical Cabaret’s ‘Two Ladies’. Here, Dickens became the stage emcee and sang, whilst playing the guitar ‘two ladies and one man’ complete with choreography that aped the original Bob Fosse film.
The set for Mother’s Ruin included a keyboard, silver velvet curtain as a backdrop, and a drinks table with empty glasses, bottles and cocktail shaker: clear signs that these three had been enjoying themselves well before we came along. Holding my free glass of boutique G&T, I felt suitably at home.
Interestingly, the duo opened their set with a revised rendition of the Lord’s Prayer that clearly set out their passion for gin and indoctrinated us into the church of ‘Mother’s Ruin’. Once the bluesy notes of the new ‘gin prayer’ had been sung, we were introduced to the ‘Holy Trinity’: gin, tonic and garnish. At this point, Marsden pulled out a tiny bottle from her bosom and poured the contents into a tumbler, whilst Wood bit off the end of a cucumber and spat it into her glass. Throughout the night both bosoms contained an endless supply of alcohol.
‘Mother’s Ruin’ – the often-quoted epithet for gin – suggests a history steeped in female oppression and women’s mental health; images like Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ from the 1750s, which picture women lying in the gutter drunk from gin, led to this nickname being coined. Gin is steeped in anti-women mythology – something that Mother’s Ruin tries to explore and debunk.
Through the medium of story-telling and singing, Mother’s Ruin starts the story with the 1729 gin craze which saw Londoners consume on average a litre of the liquor per week. With a feminist perspective, they challenge the images of ‘mother’s ruin’ by Hogarth and his ilk as propagandist, denouncing the painter and social critic as an advertiser working for a brewery. At this point, the facts come thick and fast; at times the performance felt bogged down by the sheer amount of history, but the musical story-telling helped keep the show moving.
One such moment was the story of Ada Coleman, who in 1903 was the first female barmaid in the ‘American bar’ at the Savoy Hotel. Coleman created the now infamous Hanky Panky cocktail which is still on the menu at the Savoy today. Sharing the recipe with us, Wood sang Amy Winehouse’s ‘You Know I’m No Good’ whilst Marsden concluded that Coleman was fired because the American men who frequented the Savoy during prohibition did not like being served by a woman. This was a poignant moment that caused the audience to sigh and gasp in shock from the evident struggles that women faced.
Mother’s Ruin not only highlights the complicated relationship between female suffrage and gin but also that of racism and British Imperialism. In a fantastically hilarious rendition of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, all three performers told the story of how tonic water was invented; turning Lee’s song into ‘Malarial Fever’, Wood performed the song as an inebriated dying woman.
The suffering of white imperialists in the jungles of Peru urged people to find a remedy in the aid of quinine. Years later, the British Raj in India introduced quinine to sugar and added gin to produce the infamous gin and tonic. Of course this was only reserved for the privileged, which the performers quite rightly point out; throughout the witty interplay between the performers onstage banter, story-telling and music, Mother’s Ruin maintains a solid tribute to the adversity and suffering that lay behind the invention of the G&T.
As well as history, the performers have a fantastic mastery of all styles and genres of music from the honky-tonk blues to their a capella version of The Pretenders’ ‘Hymn to Her’. One of the most outrageous moments was the rap about how gin was invented; Tom Dickens spat some bars on the microphone,whilst Marsden and Wood threw themselves into rapping all things gin.
Ending the show with an American hoedown style song, the two women rapidly sang the names of every gin they have ever tasted – ultimately testifying to the Gin God their love and devotion to the drink. Mother’s Ruin have decided to save gin from its dark past and have succeeded.
For more on Mother Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin, visit www.mothersruincabaret.com
For more from The Old Joint Stock, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.oldjointstock.co.uk