The very best live theatre is the stuff that piques the curiosity and sends the viewer off down a rabbit hole of learning and experience.
Shortly after my husband told me about an upcoming BBC series about the 40 Elephants, we came across a listing for Margo MacDonald’s one-woman play The Elephant Girls at Buddies in Bad Times. Part of Buddies Pride programming for this year, the play moves on to the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this summer.
MacDonald tells the story of the 40 Elephants through the eyes of the fictional Maggie Hale (partially based on the real-life Maggie Hughes/Hill, a high ranking member of the group). The all-girl gang associated with the Elephant and Castle gang, and estimated to have been in existence for almost 200 years, came to their heyday in the 1920s when thirty or so of the women at a time would swarm shops like Selfridges, pocketing jewelry, cosmetics, clothes and accessories, then dump the stolen goods in a get-away car to be fenced.
First intrigued by the story of the 40 Elephants in author Brian MacDonald’s Gangs of London (no relation to the actor of this piece but he is the nephew of one of the main Elephant and Castle gang members from the era), Margo MacDonald has done extensive and diligent research into the gang to give voice and flesh to a small cast of the most important characters and events.
Set in a pub in 1937, MacDonald’s Maggie Hale tells her story to an unseen listener who buys repeated rounds of drinks to keep Hale talking. Within the daring exploits, club rules and jail time, the story comes to a climax with the downfall of the gang’s heyday (it reportedly continued to exist until the 1950s in a much-diminished capacity) when queen of the gang Alice Diamond sets her girls on the family of a member in disrepute. MacDonald laces this plotline with a story of scorned lesbian relationships which are likely fictional, but it’s a gripping tale with characters that are exceptionally well-developed based on one chapter of a larger book.
Set and costumes are simple but thoroughly convincing and MacDonald as Hale is utterly splendid, a fantastic story-teller who weaves a web of intrigue and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.
My only complaint of the whole show, and it’s a tiny one, is that I’d have liked MacDonald to have been wearing a microphone, as some of the dialogue in her excellent north London accent was difficult to hear.
Given the work and meticulous research MacDonald has put into this piece, I hope she is able to do more performances of The Elephant Girls – it was a truly fascinating play that has sent me off on a chase to learn whatever I can about Alice Diamond and her crew. On that note, it seems MacDonald wasn’t the only one intrigued by the chapter in Gangs of London. Brian MacDonald has written a follow-up book entitled Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants: The Female Gang That Terrorised London.
I think we’re only beginning to hear about the Forty Elephants. If you can, make Margo MacDonald’s excellent piece part of your own education about these interesting ladies.
photo by Andrew Alexander