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Theatre Exploring identity and female solidarity

On the eve of France’s 1940 surrender an intriguing gathering takes place at Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s renowned Paris salon

Little Wars
Union Theatre
Southwark

IN SIMILAR fashion to Caryl Churchill’s 1980s Top Girls, Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars brings together a group of famous women from history in a notional dinner party. The critical difference is that this fictional gathering, here of contemporary literary luminaries, could actually have happened.

This online revival — set in the Paris apartment of modernist guru Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice Toklas, a virtual salon renowned for its gatherings of emerging artists and writers — happens in 1940 with France on the point of surrender.

Invitees include fellow Jewish Americans, playwright Lillian Hellman and the acerbically witty poet and critic, Dorothy Parker. They are joined by Muriel Gardener, a Jewish American psychologist working as an anti-Nazi operative getting Jews out of Germany, and, least likely, the very English Agatha Christie.

After discussions on the various incidents and relationships in the lives of these characters who have already entered the annals of history — for examples Parker’s alcoholic flirtations with suicide and Christie’s mysterious and sensational front-page, 11-day disappearance — the play then moves into a more dramatic mode with the realities of the situation brought home by the need to save Stein’s vulnerable protege, a young Jewish German girl, from the imminent German occupation.

McCasland here weaves in Hellman’s Julia story from her biographical Pentimento to explore issues of Jewish identity and female solidarity.

The cast handle the distanced digital presentation superbly. Linda Bassett as Stein, her ageing arrogance covering a touching vulnerability, and her adversary, Juliet Stevenson’s hard-edged Hellman carry the core of the play.

Sarah Solemani’s Gardiner, the courier living in perpetual danger, Catherine Russell’s warmly conciliatory Toklas, and Debbie Chazen’s gaily woozy Parker watch the contest. Natasha Karp’s hitherto low-keyed Bernadette delivers the description of her savage Nazi gang rape with a power that goes far beyond a screen experience.

Director Hannah Chissick makes one forget that we are looking at and listening to talking heads. Her production with uniformly outstanding performances is as moving as any fully staged version could possibly be.

Production streams online November 3-8. Tickets £12 at littlewars.co.uk, funds raised will be donated to the charity Women for Refugee Women.

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