Gin and cabaret: a chat with Mother’s Ruin playwright Maeve Marsden

Maeve Marsden is the playwright behind Mother’s Ruin, an acclaimed cabaret about everybody’s favourite juniper derivative – gin. Drenched in history, some choice song covers and more than a few laughs, there’s a reason this show has made it to stages far and wide.

Ahead of Mother’s Ruin making an appearance at Brisbane Festival (and turning the Roundhouse Theatre into a prohibition-themed bar while they’re at it), we caught up with Maeve for the latest.

mother's ruin: a cabaret about gin

How much do you love gin? Chances are it’s not as much as Maeve Marsden… she even wrote a play about it.

HAPPY: Hey Maeve, how are things? What are you up to at the moment?

MAEVE: Things are great! We are having a short break from touring Mother’s Ruin before we kick back into gear for Darwin Festival in August and Brisbane Festival in September. For me, a ‘break’ means working on my other projects, so I am producing Queerstories, my LGBTQI+ storytelling night, with shows in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Lismore, I am launching a new variety night in Sydney called Hot Gin Punch, and I am performing with my other cabaret ensemble, Lady Sings it Better. But, a break from touring also means I can tend to my balcony garden, test out new recipes, binge-watch Pose and Killing Eve, and drink Tuesday night martinis with my girlfriend, so it’s a good time.

HAPPY: Tell us about Mother’s Ruin! What’s the elevator pitch in your mind?

MAEVE: It’s a cabaret about gin! Very short elevator ride. No, there’s more to it than that. Mother’s Ruin is a theatrical cabaret, so it’s packed with true stories about the history of gin as well as songs. It’s irreverent, playful, political and high-energy, and it’s a real mixed bag in terms of musical genres, which is fun for us to play with.

HAPPY: Sounds like you’re quite the fan of gin. Do you have a favourite maker (or cocktail)?

MAEVE: I drink a lot of Australian gin – I love the creativity of Australia’s distillers, working with local ingredients and mixing it up from the traditional London Dry. My favourites are Four Pillars, Poor Tom’s, Applewood, Archie Rose, 23rd Street, Poltergeist and Sud Polaire. And my favourite cocktail is a negroni. We’ve traveled with the show, though, to the UK and New Zealand, and we get to try a lot of different gins as we go, which is delightful. In the UK, I love Sipsmith, Pickering’s, Eden Mill and Edinburgh Gin. And Reid & Reid from New Zealand is delicious. It’s ‘research’, ok?

HAPPY: What’s something about gin I would never have heard?

MAEVE: I mean, that would spoil the show, no? No spoilers! One thing that someone told us – this isn’t in the show – is that the reason G&Ts started to be served with lime instead of lemon is that when colour printing came in, Gordon’s started printing a yellow label, and the lemons didn’t look good next to the bottle in the ads, so they switched to lime. We haven’t been able to get that verified, but we do tend to think lemon tastes better in a G&T than lime.

HAPPY: Tell me about how Mother’s Ruin started. Where and how did the concept first come up?

MAEVE: I was chatting to Elly Baxter who runs a website called The Ginstress. We were, unsurprisingly, drinking gin, and she started to tell me about some of the history of the gin craze in England in the 1700s. It was so interesting, how these political influences and issues from so long ago still impact the stereotypes we have around gin, and around women who drink. This notion that gin is ‘mother’s ruin’, that it’s a drink for lonely housewives and fallen women, has really persisted for centuries.

It’s changing now, as we are going through a new gin craze, or renaissance, but it hasn’t quite gone away and we were fascinated by how it came to be. We thought, ‘there’s a show in this’, so we assembled a team and got to researching – we worked with Libby Wood, who also performs in the show, musical director Jeremy Brennan, and director Anthea Williams, and we researched, wrote, played around with songs and so on til we had a show. It was very collaborative.

mother's ruin
Photo: Anna Kucera

HAPPY: Who will be directing and starring in the Brisbane Festival performance?

MAEVE: Mother’s Ruin was directed by award-winning director Anthea Williams, and the Brisbane Festival run stars me, Libby Wood and Jeremy Brennan.

HAPPY: As part of that show you’ll be taking over the Theatre Republic bar too, which is pretty awesome. Did you have a hand in the drinks menu? What can we expect?

MAEVE: The bar is going to be serving one of our favourite gins, Archie Rose, and they’ll be serving up some incredible cocktails. The menu – and the venue – are getting a bit of a makeover, and we’ve gone with a prohibition-era theme, so it’s going to be amazing. We can’t wait!

HAPPY: And could you tell us about some choice artists who we’ll be hearing throughout the week?

MAEVE: The artists whose songs we sing in our show are a real mixed bag in terms of musical genres, which is fun for us to play with – we cover Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Martha Wainwright, The Popes, Jessie J, Billy Joel, Sia… We looked for songs about gin, but we also looked for songs about women, about motherhood because of the moniker ‘mother’s ruin’, and about drinking in general. As we unearthed interesting stories about gin, we always asked ‘how can we sing about this and how can we make it funny’, so we looked for ways to tell stories through songs.

HAPPY: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

MAEVE: I’ll also be in Brisbane on September 13 for Queerstories at Brisbane Powerhouse. Queerstories is an LGBTQI+ storytelling night I host and program, with the stories shared on a podcast as well. My Brisbane Comedy Festival Queerstories back in March packed the place out so I am coming back to launch the new Queerstories book I have edited, to be published by Hachette August 28. Queerstories is my other big project and I host events in a few cities now, and have started branching out to regional towns.

It’s a fun, inspiring, entertaining space for the community and a chance to hear some incredible, unexpected tales that celebrate our diversity and creativity. The line up for Brisbane is Steven Oliver (ABC TV’s Black Comedy), author Krissy Kneen, musician and radio presenter Eddie Ayres, photographer Ali Choudry and a couple more to be announced. Prizes* to any Brisbane locals who come to both my shows in the space of a week!

* No actual prizes, I’m an independent producer and cabaret artist, I can’t afford such things.


Mother’s Ruin shows at the Roundhouse Theatre as part of Brisbane Festival from September 18-22. Grab your tickets here.