Inside the Green Room: Lizi Bennett on writing and composing 40 Elephants

A life of crime is calling.

This February, step into a world of glamour, drama, and notoriety in 40 Elephants, following the rise and fall of the eponymous female-led crime syndicate.

We’re inviting you to get to know Lizi Bennett, who wrote and composed 40 Elephants, a little better.

Pour yourself a cocktail and watch the trailer to get in the mood, or read on to discover the secrets behind this intoxicating new musical.

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Read our exclusive interview with 40 Elephants writer and composer

Lizi Bennett explains who the 40 Elephants gang were, why their story still matters today, and how the Northcott’s Futures Festival helped to bring them to the stage.
The cast of 40 Elephants dressed in 1920s menswear sitting in a row on a velvet booth. All are holding their instruments – an accordion, a violin, a saxophone, drum sticks, a double bass – and staring down the camera. There are drinks, loose change, and playing cards strewn on the bar tables in front of them.
Photo by Primrose Bigwood

What can audiences expect from 40 Elephants?

“Glamour, violence, music and mayhem! We are theatricalising the true stories of the 40 Elephant Gang, Britain’s first female crime syndicate, in the style of a 1920s music hall performance. The show is led by actor-musicians, so be prepared for lots of live music alongside the secrets of the gang’s operations, relationships, betrayals and more!”

Who were the real 40 Elephants?

“The 40 Elephants were a gang of women from the London borough of Elephant & Castle who broke away from the male-led gang ‘The Forty Thieves’ to operate under their own leadership, mainly focusing on professional shoplifting. They were a very tight-knit group who worked as a cooperative, running from pre-1900s to around the 1950s (when the introduction of electronic tagging on clothing put a stop to their activities).”

What inspired you to write about them?

“I came across the gang entirely by accident when looking for stories of strong women for the final project on my MA. On a whim I typed ‘female heist’ into Google, not much came up other than Oceans 8 and a book by Brian McDonald, Alice Diamond and the 40 Elephants. I ordered a copy and was absolutely fascinated to discover their stories. It was shocking that neither I nor anyone else I spoke to had heard of them before! I felt that more people needed to know about these women, and that creating an actor-musician musical was a good way to do that!”

Other than the real-life story, where else did you draw inspiration from?

“I decided to set the piece in a 1920s Music Hall as that era of music and theatricality really speaks to me. It also offered a further rich history of stunning buildings and acts to explore. Musically, although it’s grounded in the 1920s, I wanted a dark jazz cabaret vibe so made sure to listen to lots of Tom Waits, The Tiger Lilies, Circus Contraption and The Dresden Dolls.”

1920's style image: a woman wearing a bowler hat, long-sleeved shirt and smoking jacket is looking intensely at the camera while wiping a violin bow with a cloth. Next to her sits an accordion.
Photo by Primrose Bigwood
The cast of 40 Elephants as the 1920s' 40 Elephant Gang. They're all fighting, using their musical instruments as weapons.
Photo by Primrose Bigwood

Why do you think the story of the 40 Elephants still resonates today?

“The 40 Elephants were a gang of women from lower-class backgrounds, who really didn’t have many choices on offer in terms of career or lifestyle. Although their brutality and dangerousness shouldn’t be ignored, their elevation in society and great successes were won through their own cleverness and bravery. Even if they were only doing what they had to do to survive, these women were extraordinary, and I think that’s what makes their stories still resonate today.”

What is the story of Stowaway Theatre so far?

Stowaway Theatre began in 2023 after I received arts council funding to further develop 40 Elephants. While studying actor-musicianship at Rose Bruford College, I had discovered a passion for theatricalising lost or forgotten stories. I was delighted by the opportunity, not only to create this show, but also to set up a company that will hopefully continue to make more exciting actor-musician theatre in the South-West.”

How does it feel to bring 40 Elephants  back to where it began?

“It’s very exciting to be back! The journey from initial creation on the Northcott Futures programme in 2022 through to where we are now has been brilliant and we’re very grateful for all the support the Northcott team has given us.”

How has 40 Elephants  changed since it was last performed at the Barnfield in 2022?

“The show has definitely developed structurally since our performance at the Greenhouse Festival Scratch Night (pictured), although a lot of what we presented that night is still included. Before it was just a twenty-minute version, but now we’re running at just over an hour with a lot more ‘acts’ and musical numbers. We’ve had chance to develop the overarching storyline as well as the characters and their relationships, so hopefully there will be a few surprises in store for anyone who came to watch previously.”

A production photo of 40 Elephants at Futures Festival 2022. Two performers weraing 1920s flapper-dresses, over-coats and kitten heels stand in front of a loosely suspended brown sheet. One of them is standing and posing, pointing to the sky as if mid-performance, the other is seated and looking on, open-mouthed. In the background, another performer in a black suit stands a lacquered double bass.
Photo by South West Theatre Photography
The cast of 40 Elephants dressed in 1920s menswear gathered in a loose group around velvet booth seating. Some are drinking from whiskey tumblers or cocktail glasses, others are admiring the instruments in their hands. One of them, a tall, bowler-hat wearing woman holding a violin, stares into the camera.
Photo by Primrose Bigwood

What do you hope audiences will take away from 40 Elephants?

“We want to celebrate the stories of these daring women and invite our audience to question what they would do if they were in the shoes of the characters.

We hope that the exciting genre of actor-musicianship, which is still a lesser-known theatrical form, draws them in.

As well as learning something about the 40 Elephants, we also hope they come away having enjoyed a great night out!”

Intrigued? Dive even deeper into the world of the 40 Elephants by joining us at our city-centre Barnfield Theatre later this month. We can’t wait to see you there!


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