All does not go smoothly at Steven Carl McCasland’s fantasy dinner party, a gathering of long-dead women of letters. The party, at which food is never served but plenty of scotch is sloshed around, takes place in June 1940, on the night that France surrenders to Hitler’s forces. We are inside the French Alpine home of the lesbian couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, whose formidable, bristling guests include Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. No one seems to like anybody else much and they bitch, squabble, throw drinks on each other and jostle for attention.
This high concept play could easily have turned into an emotionally arid parlour game, but McCasland’s writing grants these women sensibilities beyond their literary reputations. There are captivating performances from its glittery cast who have come together to raise money for Women for Refugee Women. They enter their characters fully, despite the bounds of this online rehearsed reading. Directed by Hannah Chissick, they appear or disappear in virtual boxes as they enter or leave the room, and we see little more than their faces, along with occasional stage directions visible on the screen.
Linda Bassett is a commanding Stein, speaking in lyrical observations but also throwing hissy fits at her nemesis, Hellman, who is played by a consummately steely Juliet Stevenson. Sophie Thompson is the clipped, ever-so-English Christie, who reveals a natural nosiness (or a “love of detail”, as she calls it). Debbie Chazen’s Parker is playful but also surprisingly sweet, while Catherine Russell’s Toklas is a gentle and balancing presence, stepping in as peacemaker in this fractious room of big egos.
After the first amusing hour of waspishness and rivalry, they become warmer and more intimate, putting their writerly identities aside to speak as women. Parker recounts the guilt she feels about a teenage abortion; Christie talks ruefully of her first, philandering husband and the discovery of his mistress, which leads to her famous 11-day disappearance. Toklas speaks of her absolute love for Stein, and Stein responds in the same tender language of romance.
Meanwhile, the German Jewish maid, Bernadette (Natasha Karp), tells a harrowing story of gang rape that segues into the play’s bigger theme of war and Jewish persecution.
The plot hinges on a mystery guest known as Mary (Sarah Solemani), who calls herself a psychiatrist, and McCasland incorporates an infamous literary controversy: Hellman, in 1983, was forced to defend her book, Pentimento, against charges by a New York psychiatrist, Muriel Gardiner, that her life had been appropriated for it. But there is a lightness of touch to it all, and the discussions about collective responsibility, individual action or inaction in the face of moral wrongdoing, and the question of whether to stay silent or speak out, are deeply resonant.