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FringeReview UK 2022

The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: American Theater, Biographical Drama, Comedic, Drama, LGBTQ, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Edward Einhorn, Set Design by Machiko Weston, and Costume Design by Anna Lewis, with Ali Hunter Lighting Designer (Associate Lighting Catja Hamilton), Mark Bruckner Composer and Sound Designer, Movement Consultant Phoebe Hyder.

Stage Manager Mary Forsyth, DSM Jordan Littlewood, ASMRose Eke, Productio n Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Production Carpenter Tom Baum, Wardrobe Iris Ibanez Rojas, Production Electrician Edward Callow, Production Sound Engineer Marie Zschommler, Production Technician Tom McCreadie, Produciton Intern Lola Oniya, Production Photographer ali wright, Trailer Videographer Rory Chambers, Progrsamme designer Ciaran Walsh, Co-Producer James L Simon.

Till April 16th.


A marriage is a marriage is a marriage. The marriage of true minds meets in Edward Einhorn’s gift of a wedding that should have been: The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (note the immediate co-opting) also directed by Einhorn finally arrives at Jermyn Street Theatre after that little unpleasantness in 2020.

Since Stein and Toklas have been waiting since 1933, that’s nothing; but this wedding’s a small gem of language, farce, heartbreak and affirmation.

That’s not to say Stein hadn’t actually written one. Her 1937 A Wedding Bouquet, a kind of recitation-opera with music by Lord Berners (he of the dyed pink flamingos) plays with the edges of what’s said. ‘Bitterness… bitterness’ as one refrain has it of slighted guests, surely a Stein standby. There’s little of that here, even from waspish fellow-composer Virgil Thomson who enjoys a wafer-thin walk-on and understood Stein’s intentions better than Berners. But then they were always falling out. Virgil has a certain venom, but it does not pour.

Stein defined the modernist milieu. Born 1874, older than most high modernists bar Schoenberg, her junior by a few months, Stein fitted perfectly the Parisian obsession with modes: the interwar period’s with genius flits around who’s one, who isn’t, fuelling much of the play’s litanic doxology of who’s in, who’s out. Surprisingly, Alice B Toklas is the decided one here. She might not have written her Autobiography, but she did pen the Cookbook. She chooses the ingredients.

This occasions any number of multi-roling parts from Kelly Burke’s Picasso and Mark Huckett’s Hemingway in particular. Even Natasha Byrne’s Stein and Alyssa Simon’s Toklas, lifelong wife to Stein, play relatives of themselves as well as each other: Stein pretending to be Toklas pretending to be Stein, and visa-versa with Toklas taking care not to be too many: she is, Einhorn shows, the conciliatory figure who knows she must be beloved and outnumbered.

Yet Toklas defines the trio of genius as three rings in the head and a cloud-capped dream involving Solomon Abraham and Stein, twice: so Stein herself, Picasso, and unusually British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead make the cut of exclusively male geniuses. Hemingway could have been, but like so many doesn’t quite. In all this over-looping dialogue Einhorn seems to invoke the brittle hilarity of Ivy Compton-Burnett. There’s a meeting of genii that should have been.

The play’s two acts allow a run up to the marriage’s imaginary, leave us with a lyrically heart-warming Jewish wedding white-laced in farce and the sound of traditional broken glass, officiated by Burke in yet another role and a surprise second witness (the first is Huckett’s uninvited Hemingway). And a surprise for the audience too. There’s even a Wedding Night and an uproarious enactment of a long-heralded sexual climax. Think moo. The second, gesturing to a Stein bit of verbal cubism, threatens to rerun the first act from an Isosceles triangle; but rapidly moves elsewhere, into painful territory.

One’s the edgy nature of the couple’s Jewish identity, shadowed with the upcoming 1940s. Stein calls Toklas ‘my little Jew’ though Toklas turns Christian and enjoys a climactic moment with the Virgin Mary who might have more to do with this play than we think.

It’s a given that Einhorn plays with Stein’s verbal repetitions, quotes liberally but not too much, enjoys his own authorial rhythms as subversive counterpoint. The drama’s part recitation and reinforcement, part wild farce – Huckett carrying Burke offstage in a bullfighting re-enactment, or a wild bacchanale in jerky freeze-frame are just two of the off-beat delights to energise the script’s arch recitatives.

Byrne exudes marmoreal calm with a sort of stern warmth. It’s in the way she glances at Simon’s anxious, affectionate, just occasionally wild Toklas. Byrne’s final speech hangs weightless yet memorably plummeting; you feel Byrne here is Stein. Simon mounts a repertoire of shifting expressivity, wry satellite around Byrne’s lunar caustic. Yet Simon’s Toklas carries the heart of the play too, with a heartbreak of denouement, including the right to inherit still being fought for. Simon ensures it’s her firm witness that authors a true Toklas autobiography via Einhorn.

Huckett’s blustering Hemingway is neatly caught between tremulous terror and drunken vulnerability on occasion. Huckett carries the more preposterous galumphing to a sublime ballet. He’s good too in those whinier parts like Sherwood Anderson, who learned from Stein and says they’re both finished as writers, wiseacre Thornton Wilder; broguish as Joyce and that spikey Svengali, Ezra Pound.

Burke’s Picasso is all ballet too, often floating off her seat, especially when inviting all wives and mistresses on a single day. Burke in several roles like Picabia and the wedding officiator looks to overleap the occasion; she’s mesmerising. Even pipe in mouth, as avuncular, seraphic Whitehead.

Machiko Weston’s set consists of empty white picture-frames that light up with scene titles – Ali Hunter’s lighting is pointillist, witty and lucid – as well as white matching American Shaker-style chairs often moved around, with a bench backstage. The rest is a blue grey backdrop so stillness and occasionally manic activity offsets and petrifies into instant sculpture. Mark Bruckner’s sound envelope too is a distillation of quiet punctuated by broken glass and bursts of toreador muzak.

Though the themes of love and tolerance are sometimes beautifully explicit in Einhorn’s text, they’re always inside the time of the play, which turns on for instance the use of ‘gay’ as a Janus-like motif. The tone’s just right.

It’s wrong to look for something with a more conventionally satisfying arc. True, Einhorn might have torn up the patina of Stein’s artifice and tried to imagine a domestic dialogue removed from it, but what would be the point? Admittedly we focus on Stein’s salon and pronouncements on men (never, sadly, women), but it’s the Stein we can know, enlivened with farce and quick-change. Einhorn’s litanic echt-Stein technique means a lengthy Stein/Toklas badinage would grow tedious, but the two monologues at the end show he can break out of this; perhaps a couple more would have been more.

When Simon narrates how the couple’s lives close, the shudder of war when dreaming peace carries a sharpness now more than Einhorn could have imagined writing the play in 2017. Such exquisite works find their time; speak to it again and again and again.