Cabaret Interview Caro Meets

Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood: Mother’s Ruin – A Cabaret About Gin

By | Published on Wednesday 11 April 2018

Australian cabaret stars Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood have won praise and awards at a number of international festivals for their brilliant show, ‘Mother’s Ruin’, which, as some may have guessed, is a cabaret style show focused on the history of gin.

I love gin, and when I first heard about it, I also loved the sound of this show. So when I discovered it was headed for a run at a London venue, I very much wanted to have a chat about it with creators Marsden and Wood. So, I did.

CM: Firstly, tell us about the format of the show…? What sort of performance can we expect?
MM+LW: ‘Mother’s Ruin’ is a cabaret in the sense that it combines music, storytelling, comedy and politics. We share stories from gin’s history, interspersed with songs, some in their original form and some rewritten and rearranged for new context. There’s a great deal of humour weaved in and only a little bit of audience interaction!

CM: Does it have any narrative elements?
MM+LW: Yes. Mother’s Ruin doesn’t follow a single narrative or characters, rather we share a number of different stories we’ve found to create a through line that charts the history of gin. Often audience members tell us they are surprised by how much storytelling is in the show, how much they learned; people come expecting a few boozy tunes and a bit of cabaret mayhem, but really the show is like a little piece of musical theatre.

CM: Obviously, the show is about gin. But what wider themes does it explore?
MM+LW: The history of gin is such a complex and rich topic to explore, the biggest challenge was what to cut! There was so much. We explore themes of women’s liberation and feminism, colonialism, class and poverty, prohibition, to a lesser extent mental health and alcoholism. These are all pretty intense topics so when you list them like this it sounds quite intense and serious and dry, but we weave our politics in with irreverence and humour.

CM: What made you decide to do a show focused on gin? What was your inspiration?
MM+LW: I mean, first and foremost because we like drinking it! We couldn’t tour ‘Mother’s Ruin’ without being fans of gin because, of course, we end up drinking so much of it on the road. But it was the connection of women and gin that inspired us to write a whole show about it. We were curious about how gin got its reputation as ‘mother’s ruin’, as a drink for women, specifically fallen women. How and why does a simple beverage end up with such a strong cultural significance?

CM: How did you go about putting the show together? And how did you choose which songs you would use?
MM+LW: We worked together a lot – in our team with Anthea Williams (Director), Jeremy Brennan (Musical Director) and Elly Baxter (The Ginstress). So we’d get in a room and read and write and sing and try things out, talk about the history and stories we were discovering and try to make each other laugh.

With the songs we first looked for those that referenced gin or Mothers. Then as we researched and started to write our stories, we found the songs that fit. So we were writing about the gin craze of the 1700s and we realised there was a way to weave in ‘Mama Knows Best’ by Jessie J. Or, we were writing abut the invention of tonic water, which first existed as a treatment for malaria, and we thought it’d be funny to rewrite the lyrics to ‘Fever’. The first song we chose was ‘Gin House Blues’, and that song now opens the show. And so on, and so on – we all contributed different song selections to the final set list.

CM: You’ve taken the show to myriad festivals in recent times (and won much acclaim of course). How do the different festivals compare?
MM+LW: We’ve had such wonderful and varied festival experiences, at Edinburgh Fringe, Sydney Festival, Adelaide Cabaret Festival etc. The festival environment is really great for artists like us as it creates buzz and you can connect and network with other artists and producers. Sydney Festival was a real milestone for us, as it’s our home town, and we got to perform to a full and rowdy 550-seat spiegeltent every night. But there’s also nothing like the mad energy and relentless pace of Edinburgh Fringe. We sold out our edfringe run last year and that’s how we’re touring again so soon in the UK. Edinburgh Fringe really is a wonderful platform for artists to promote their work and find new opportunities.

CM: Has the show changed at all since you first began performing it?
MM+LW: Yes! This tour we’ve added two new songs that weren’t in the last version – ‘Chandelier’ by Sia and ‘Gin Soaked Boy’ by Tom Waits. We started using these songs to promote the show at variety nights in Edinburgh and we liked them so much we’ve added them in. We also hear new stories or new jokes and add them as we go. And the show has relaxed a lot. We’re coming up to our 100th performance (which will be at the Sydney Opera House in May), so we have a pretty solid feel for the show now and can improvise a bit more.

CM: Will you be performing it again after the run here? What plans do you have for it in the future?
MM+LW: Yes, we hope to be touring it for a while longer. After the UK, we return to Sydney for a week at Sydney Opera House, which is a dream come true. Then we have two weeks in Victoria, with shows in Melbourne, Albury-Wodonga, and a couple of shows at Four Pillars distillery. We’ve got some bookings in New Zealand, and we also hope to come back to the UK in 2019.

CM: What other plans do you have? Any new stuff in the pipeline?
MM+LW: We’re working on a couple of new shows but to be honest we’re often so busy with this one it’s hard to find the time to write! We also both have other projects at home in Sydney that keep us occupied. But hopefully after this tour, we’ll be able to get back into developing our next work!


‘Mothers Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin’ is on at The Other Palace from 17-21 Apr, see the venue website here for info and to book.

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Photo: Patrick Boland