Next week, Port Hope’s Ontario Street Theatre — in conjunction with Parry Riposte Productions — is bringing something special to four small communities in the Kawarthas and eastern Ontario.
From October 18th to 21st, producer Sean Carthew is presenting the award-winning one-woman show The Elephant Girls on a four-stop tour in Millbrook, Cobourg, Warkworth, and Bloomfield. Directed by Mary Ellis and written and performed by Margo MacDonald, The Elephant Girls explores the history of The Forty Elephants (also known as The Forty Thieves), a real-life all-female crime syndicate that terrorized London UK for over a century.
Making its debut at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in 2015, The Elephant Girls has been a major theatrical success for Margo MacDonald since the moment it hit the stage. Selling out its initial run, and held over for three additional performances, the show won all the top awards for the festival, and went on to sweep all the categories in Ottawa’s Rideau Awards later that year.
Margo has been touring the show across Canada ever since. In 2016 Margo brought The Elephant Girls to Europe, where it played for a month at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.
The show proved so popular that she brought it back to Europe earlier this year, where she staged the show for three weeks in the Elephant and Castle District where the Forty Elephants gang operated.
The show also was featured in the International Dubbin Gay Theatre Festival and at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton, England. After its four-performance run in the Kawarthas, The Elephant Girls will be returning to Toronto as part of the One More Night Festival.
“I have been following The Elephant Girls for two years at least,” says Sean Carthew, who originally founded Ontario Street Theatre as a theatre space in Port Hope and has since converted it into a pop-up theatre company that stages shows across in various locations across the Kawarthas.
“As soon as I saw what the play was about I knew I had to get it here,” he continues. “How does no one know about an all-women’s gang that terrorized London for over one hundred years?
“It comes down to the story. It’s interesting, intriguing and enlightening. Throw in one hell of a performance from the playwright herself and it’s a done deal. Plus Margo herself is endearing, strong, talented and down-to-earth and she is brave enough to try a four small-town tour.”
VIDEO: “The Elephant Girls” Trailer
Margo MacDonald first learned of the not-so-infamous gang from a mention on social media, and turned into a passion project that has paid off for the Toronto-based performer.
“I stumbled across a mention of The Forty Elephants on Facebook,” Margo recalls. “I was reading a post and someone had commented, ‘Yes, but have you heard of The Forty Elephants? They were a real-life all-female gang in Victorian England.’
“I immediately became intrigued and, after a bit of googling, realized the gang had been more or less forgotten about and was only recently brought back to light in a book written by Brian McDonald called The Gangs of London. I decided pretty quickly I wanted to write about them, to share their story and to explore more about what made them work.
“They started out as the women’s branch of the Elephant and Castle gang, or The Elephant Boys, in London, England. They were the wives, daughters, and sisters of the male gang members and operated as thieves for the gang. Some sources say they go back as far as the 1700s but the first mention of the Elephant Girls, or the Forty Thieves as they were known at the time, in police records dates to the 1840s.
“They were around, terrorizing London shopkeepers, for over 100 years. They were at the height of their power under Queen Alice Diamond in the 1920s, but that is also when events took place which would lead to their downfall. This is the time period my play focuses on. The gang held on in a much diminished form until the 1950s, and then fizzled out into obscurity.”
But as Margo points out, due to their economic situation and social status at the time, for most women in the Elephant and Castle area, becoming an Elephant Girl seemed to be their best option for survival.
“Elephant and Castle was, and to some extent still is, one of the poorest and roughest areas of London,” Margo explains. “These women had very little to choose from in terms of how to survive. Becoming a member of the gang seemed like the best option to many of them. They mostly robbed high-class department stores of London’s excessively wealthy West End and felt it was their right to do so.
They mostly robbed high-class department stores of London’s excessively wealthy West End and felt it was their right to do so. They stole from the rich and gave to themselves.
“They stole from the rich and gave to themselves. The money they made when towards buying fancy clothes and living the party lifestyle — until they ran out of money and then they’d go out on the rampage again.”
In The Elephant Girls, Margo explores the story of the gang through her character named Maggie Hale.
“Maggie is a fictional character, but one whose story is made up of bits and pieces of various actual gang members’ lives and careers,” she says. “Most of the history and stories of the gang you hear in the show are based on what is on historical record about them.
“The fictional parts of the show are those which deal with the specific relationships between the women, the emotional through-line, the reasons behind why they did what they did.
“None of these women, unlike some of the male gangsters, wrote memoirs. All we have of their words are those recorded in police records, court transcripts, and reported in the newspapers. So I’ve had to use my imagination to put together the ‘whys’ of what they did in order to make the show dramatic and a piece of theatre, rather than a history lecture.
“But in researching my characters I looked not only to the past but also the present — it turns out the reasons why girls join gangs today are pretty much the same as they were a hundred years ago.”
Margo describes her character Maggie as an “enforcer” for the Elephant Girls. As Margo explains, the enforcers had a unique and dangerous role in the gang.
“There are newspaper articles which highlight the fact the gang had a handful of women who dressed as men, drove the getaway cars, and did all the dirty work. I found this to be one of the most interesting facts I came across and decided to tell the story from the point of view of one of these enforcers.
“They are the ones who would get their hands dirty, keep the girls in line, and warn off rival gangs or independent thieves who tried to operate in the gang’s territory.”
After winning theatrical awards across Ontario and being performed on two continents, the fact that The Elephant Girls will be performed in some smaller Ontario communities is a real treat. This is a part of Ontario Street Theatre’s mandate to bring first-rate theatre from the larger cities so smaller cities can enjoy critically acclaimed theatre.
“I think it is important to challenge audiences and offer something they may have not thought of going to see or had the opportunity to be able to go to,” says Sean. “Bringing indie, edgy shows to small towns works. Why should only bigger cities get to see this kind of show? The talent will come here, so let’s do it.
“When Margo said yes to coming here I felt very proud. Proud that I was going to be a part of bringing such great theatre to audiences that may have never had the chance to see something like this and proud that a talent like Margo wanted to work with me and follow my vision of a four small town tour. I am also proud of the response from all the towns. People are getting on board and going.”
Sean plans to continue bringing similar theatre to the Kawarthas in the same format of putting on four performances on four consecutive nights in four smaller towns. Currently, he is planning on presenting another production for the Christmas holidays.
“I really just hope that people are entertained,” Sean says. “Whether it’s the story, the history, the performance, subject matter, or just being great edgy theatre, this show will entertain you.”
The Elephant Girls will be performed on Wednesday, October 18th in Millbrook at a yet-to-be-disclosed location (email Sean at email@example.com for details); on Thursday, October 19th in Cobourg at The Concert Hall at Victoria Hall Concert Hall; on Friday, October 20th in Warkworth at the Warkworth Town Hall Centre for the Arts; and on Saturday, October 21st in Bloomfield at the Baxter Arts Centre.
The shows start at 8 p.m. and tickets are $25 (except for the Cobourg show, a fundraiser for the Art Gallery of Northumberland, where tickets are $35). For information on where to purchase tickets for each performance in person and online, visit the Ontario Street Theatre website at popupshows.ca or follow them on Facebook.
For more information on The Elephant Girls, visit the Parry Riposte Productions’ website at parryriposte.ca.e