(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/26; Tamzin Outhwaite, left, and Fiona Button in “What a Carve Up!”Credit…via Barn Theatre/Lawrence Batley Theatre/New Wolsey Theatre; via Pam Green.)
The first coronavirus shutdown caught playhouses unawares, but they learned lessons that stood them in good stead when the shutters came down again.
LONDON — What a difference a lockdown makes. By way of proof, consider the terrific lineup of actresses brought together for “Little Wars,” an imaginative if overly arch play by the American writer Stephen Carl McCasland that is streaming online through Dec. 3. Its run finishes the day after England’s second coronavirus shutdown is scheduled to be lifted, at which point theaters in most regions will, with luck, be open again.
Whereas streaming prospects during the first lockdown relied largely on recordings from theaters’ archives, the preference now is for material fashioned for the strange era in which we find ourselves.
The digital premiere of “Little Wars” testifies to the abundance of talented performers who can be drawn upon during the pandemic, and to their desire to practice their craft against difficult odds. I’m not sure McCasland’s conceit would amount to as much as it does without the collectively hefty presence of such actresses as Linda Bassett, Juliet Stevenson and Sophie Thompson, all established theatrical names here.
Seen in a workshop production in New York in 2014, “Little Wars” imagines a 1940 party in the French Alps hosted by Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas. Their diverse guest list brings together no less than Agatha Christie, Lillian Hellman and the legendary wit Dorothy Parker. Oh, and a woman named Mary, who turns out to be someone else entirely.
But the occasion is more than McCasland’s gossip-heavy assemblage, which owes at least some debt to Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls,” a classic of the English repertoire that begins with a fantastical all-female gathering of historical women before devolving into a penetrating domestic drama. The real delight here lies in the ever-welcome Bassett (a Churchill regular) as a tense, grim-faced Stein, alongside Stevenson in droll, dismissive form as the playwright Hellman, who doesn’t like it when one of her companions mistakenly refers to “The Little Foxes” as “The Little Horses.” Genocide may be in the air, but let’s get the title of Hellman’s signature 1939 play right.
Filmed very much for our Zoom era, the reading has been directed by Hannah Chissick, who catches the actresses in tight close-ups that put the performers first — and very sensibly, too.