q&a with maeve marsden and libby wood
Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood, known to cabaret and comedy fans as one half of the incomparable Lady Sings it Better, are returning to Melbourne with another fabulous show – ‘Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin.’ A sprawling, rambunctious history of gin and its close association with undesirable women, ‘Mother’s Ruin’ moves from misery to vaudeville in a moment, intertwining excess and prohibition, history and (re)invention.
Lip emailed to Maeve to find out more about the show’s inspiration, and the knack to creating an accessible, hilarious feminist cabaret.
‘The history of gin’ is quite a specific topic – what inspired you to work it into a cabaret?
Gin and cabaret are such wonderful bedfellows, really. I’ve seen a lot of cabaret performers reference gin drinking on stage but I hadn’t see any specifically looking at its history. I love gin, obviously, and we were working with a publicist, Elly Baxter, who happened to run a website about gin (to be honest, we chose her as our publicist because of a shared love of a G&T!). Last year, we started talking about gin and its association with women’s history and got very excited about the idea of a collaboration. We were amazed we hadn’t thought of it sooner!
What was the research process for creating this act?
We did a lot of reading and a lot of talking about gin (and drinking it, of course). The trick was to talk to each other about the history so we could sift through the stories and facts and find the ones that could be funny or interesting – we needed to get the ideas off the page. In some ways the show will never quite be finished as people keep telling us new facts and stories and if they’re fascinating, we’ll find ways to weave them in.
Gin has rather a degenerate, and very gendered, history, as reflected in the title of your show. What was the more interesting or outrageous claim about women who drink gin that you discovered while writing?
Most of the outrageous claims about gin and women do come back to motherhood and the notion the drinking gin would make women neglectful mothers. No mention, of course, of gin-drinking fathers! We suspect that the myth that gin and a hot bath can get rid of an unwanted pregnancy probably evolved from the connotations of gin being the antithesis of motherhood, and it is definitely one of the most famous and outrageous claims. I don’t want to give too much away, but the association between gin and women originated in the London gin craze in the 1700s, an era that we explore in the show. We look at the role of politics and propaganda at that time and aim to dismantle a few assumptions.
I think, as a company, we’d look at any topic from a women’s perspective. You could look at gin and men by exploring its history with the British navy, or some of the famous Master Distillers or men who fought to change distilling laws. There’s a whole show in that as well! But as feminists, we were intrigued by gin’s association with women and some of the famous women throughout its history, as well as broader ideas about women and alcohol. One of the outrageous facts we discovered is that, legally, women couldn’t drink in Australian pubs unless accompanied by a man til the 60s or 70s. Ridiculous!
Gin went from being a scourge of the masses to an old lady drink, and now it’s experiencing a hipster revival. Where do you think gin will go next?
Gin has certainly become very popular of late but there is still a long way to go for this revival with botanicals getting more and more exotic and extravagant. A new trend emerging is matching spirits and cocktails with food, similar to wine pairings. Gin is already on the front foot for this trend with its variety of flavours.
You’re also known for your fantastic, feminist musical group Lady Sings it Better. Gin, like feminist comedy, is a pretty niche subject. What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of targeting a specific audience in show business?
Lady Sings it Better aims at mocking pop culture and gender stereotypes in music. Many of the songs we perform are familiar to everyone with a radio so you’re actually looking at a culture that most people engage with. When you start to critique the lyrics and play with expected themes through a feminist eye, you exclude people who are actively anti-feminist, but we do really try to make an accessibly feminist show so we aren’t just preaching to the choir. We don’t try to target a specific audience, though of course we go down well with feminist activists! With Mother’s Ruin, it’s niche in one sense, but gin is wildly popular at the moment. New gin bars and distilleries are popping up everywhere, you’ve got gin festivals and classes where you make your own gin; it really is experiencing a renaissance. In the end, we’re creating work about things that interest us: feminism, history, gin, music, storytelling. If other people find these things interesting, we’ll have an audience. You have to make work that you are passionate about and hope you can draw people in for the ride. With Mother’s Ruin, people are curious because they’ve perhaps just started drinking gin or they’ve loved it for years, they may know a little about the history but not to the depth we go into. Nerding out on the history of something you love, combined with singing and humour, surely that’s not too niche …
Finally, what is your favourite gin-based cocktail?
I do love a good G&T, made well with good quality tonic water. For ages my favourite was a Hendricks/lime/coriander/cucumber/jalapenos concoction at The Green Room Lounge but that bar is shut now. I don’t have a traditional favourite but I will always try the gin cocktail on a menu, especially if it has citrus elements.
Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin is supported by Four Pillars Gin in Melbourne.
For more information, or to book visit the Melbourne Cabaret Festival or Butterfly Club websites.
Gin lovers can purchase a cocktail package ticket. Concession prices are available.
Anyone interested in supporting an independent arts company creating women-centred work should visit the Lady Sings it Better Patreon page.
Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin
Performed by Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood
Musical direction by Jeremy Brennan
Created with Elly Baxter from The Ginstress
Directed by Anthea Williams
14–19 June, The Butterfly Club, Melbourne
Mother’s Ruin is also appearing at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (June 10–12) and Festival of Voices (9 July, Hobart).