Girl gangs of Hoxton
AI Profile: Karena Johnson, artistic director and chief executive of Hoxton Hall
The true but little told story of the Victorian girl gangs of London will open a unique all-female theatre season in one of the last working music halls, celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage.
Hoxton Hall in East London is to mark the centenary women’s suffrage in 2018 with a season, Female Parts, created and performed entirely by women, devised by the venue’s artistic director, Karena Johnson. It will open on January 20 with Oranges and Elephants, the first musical by the playwright Lil Warren.
Not only is the musical believed to be the first ever to have a wholly female cast, the entire production team, with music by Jo Collins and directed by Susie McKenna, is female – as is this whole three month season. The score follows the music hall genre, complete with a female chair leading the proceedings.
“We’ve got to 2017 and we still have to make a point to whatever great institution it might be that you’ve announced your new season and there’s not a single woman writer in it” says Johnson. “And people don’t notice the absence of women in things – there’s a strange kind of default to men.
It’s an astonishing fact that most theatre tickets are bought
by women, and they’re buying them to watch men’s stories
“So I wanted the opportunity to say there are amazing creative women and we need to put them out there, not only for their sakes but to make a space for young artists whose role models they can be. It’s an astonishing fact that most theatre tickets are bought by women, and they’re buying them to watch men’s stories.”
Her season, then, is of women telling women’s stories, starting with the musical relating the war between the Forty Elephants of the Elephant & Castle and the Oranges of Stepney, both ruthless gangs of female pocket-pickers and muggers. But there will be stand-up comedy, cabaret, music and a finale of three short plays directed by Johnson herself.
Johnson has another mission, however. It is to bring this unique survival from the heyday of the music hall back into its community with a contemporary audience. “It was built in 1863 by a guy who wanted to create a musical hall for working people behind houses for them to live in, but it was a music hall with a difference - its theme was philanthropy and education, and there was no booze” she says.
It lasted a couple of years when a true music hall impresario bought it and reopened it as MacDonald’s Music Hall attracting audiences twice the size regulations will allow now – in the 1870s there were an estimated 80 music halls in the Hoxton-Shoreditch area alone, she says - with two balconies on top of which MacDonald wanted to add a third to cram even more in. He was denied planning permission, and after half a dozen years it closed when its licence was not renewed following neighbourhood complaints about noise and bad behaviour.
It was eventually bought by a philanthropist, biscuit heir William Palmer, who turned it into a temperance hall. When he died in 1893 it reverted to the Bedford Institute, a Quaker-run adult education organisation, and it is the Quakers who still own the freehold that have ensured the survival of this extraordinary venue, which now seats just 227.
It became a community centre whose head was still called The Warden, and in the 1970s, was run by May Scott who introduced the arts and performance to her care of local youth. She brought working artists in to teach the kids, one of whom was George Passmore of Gilbert & George. “I taught hooligans in the afternoons and old ladies in the evenings, and by far the more terrifying were the old ladies” he told Johnson recently. In 2015, when she took over as artistic director and chief executive, the Grade II* listed Hoxton Hall reopened after a £2m restoration and refurbishment with generous help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other trusts and foundations, returning it to its original look complete with high stage, ceiling windows, double balconies and two fireplaces with pier glasses above them.
Karena Johnson is not an East Ender, hailing originally from south of the Thames at Clapham. She got a theatre directing MA at Royal Holloway College and her first job was programming at Oval House in Stockwell, when she also created her own black theatre touring group, Kushite. She went on to run Contact Theatre in Manchester and then artistic director of The Broadway in Barking.
“Quite a journey” she says now. “It was a beautiful building with no audience, the BNP was the official opposition on the council and it was a very political atmosphere. But we built a brilliant programme by developing new plays and embracing entertainment, and attendance grew so that when the council decided to cut funding the people bombarded them and they changed their mind.
When the politics got scary we confronted it through art and by allowing
people who don’t normally speak to each other to occupy the same space
“I felt I'd done my job, because the people now believed it was their place. When the politics got scary we confronted it through art and by allowing people who don’t normally speak to each other to occupy the same space. It was bonkers but it worked.”
At Hoxton, she discovered that for 44 years the hall had been run by women, for no particular reason, but it gave her the idea for her 2018 season. Through the year there are performances, panto, events, and for six days of every week there are well-attended free workshops for seven-to-19-year-olds, with the spring season taking on a theme.
It has not been easy putting together an all-female programme, with designers, lighting and sound engineers being found often by word of mouth. Comedy agents were reluctant to put female comics forward because they felt they wouldn’t be able to fill the hall, until Johnson tied up with Funny Women which supports and promotes women comics.
Female Parts will continue after Oranges and Elephants with Jazz versus Jukebox featuring poets and musicians; introducing 1930s and 40s lindy hop dancing with Spring Swing; stand-up comedy with Funny Women with which Johnson has recently sealed a partnership for the hall (“they had a try-out here and just fell in love with the place” she says) who will also run a workshop for female comedians; cabaret with Patrizia Paolini’s company; and provocative comedian Desiree Burch with her solo show Unf*uckable which comes with the strict “Over-18s only” warning.
Johnson will round off the season herself by directing three short lays. The first is a commissioned piece from the award-winning singer, actor and director OneNess Sankara, The Immigrant, which explores the guilt pressures of a successful working mother. The final two are both by Franca Rame and her husband Dario Fo – A Mother is about a woman who discovers from the television news that her son is a terrorist, and The Woman Alone explores how a woman imprisoned by housewifely duties finds means of escape. Johnson believes Rame is an inspiring, witty and thought-provoking voice who, despite his being a left-wing activist, was nevertheless over-shadowed by Fo.
“I hope the season will start to put some of this right, I think it will” Johnson says. “It’s 100 years since the Representation of the People Act gave women the vote, it was such a major moment, but we're still having to fight.
“It’s not that it makes me angry as that it gives me something to kick against, it’s what's interesting about the moment we’re living in. The struggle continues and we’ll be having a debate for young women about political engagement which is being organised by some of our young trainees that come from our community.
“And I hope this season allows more people to discover this amazing place.”