Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London – until 3 December 2022
Any guilt we might feel over not being familiar with the story of Julie d’Aubigny is quickly put to rest within minutes of La Maupin getting underway, as the lady herself informs us that Wikipedia only devotes 700-odd words to the story of her life (Mr Blobby gets double that, apparently).
Her obvious frustration at this fact is explained over the course of the following two hours, as we learn what an extraordinary and extremely Wikipedia-worthy life it was. Born around 1673, Julie was married off at a young age, but quickly escaped her boring husband and earned herself a death sentence by rescuing her lover from a convent, and burning down the convent in the process. That’s where our show begins – and it only gets wilder from there.
La Maupin is a folk punk musical celebrating this queer icon, written by Olivia Thompson and performed by a small cast of actor-musicians from female-led theatre company Fantastic Garlands. The story follows Julie on a rollercoaster ride as she runs from the law, fights in duels, joins the opera, falls in and out of love with men and women alike, moves to Paris, gets another death sentence – and does it all while being unequivocally, unapologetically herself, even when everything and everyone seems to be against her.
That same defiant spirit comes across in the show, which sets out to do a huge amount of work with very limited resources. The in-the-round performance space is tiny, the costumes, set and props minimal, and five actors (Olivia Warren, Olivia Thompson, Megan Armitage, Katrina Michaels and Frida Rødbroe) play countless characters and multiple instruments.
As a result, the show can at times feel a bit chaotic, particularly at the start as the audience settle into the storytelling style, but ultimately there’s so much joy and heart contained within that tiny stage that any limitations become extremely easy to overlook. It’s also important to note the skill of director Suzy Catliff, who makes use of every inch of available space in the room, somehow managing to make it feel intimate instead of crowded, and finds an ingenious solution for the lack of props which I won’t spoil here – but it’s brilliant.
All the actors give their absolute all throughout, with an excellent Rødbroe embodying the independent spirit of La Maupin; it takes them mere minutes to win the entire audience to Julie’s side despite the dubious circumstances in which we meet her (the aforementioned convent burning). The other four actors step seamlessly between roles – among many highlights are Warren as the bawdy Comte d’Albert, Julie’s antagonist turned lover, and Katrina Michaels as her lecherous “protector”, the Comte d’Armagnac. The company also prove adept at balancing the tone of the play, which can switch from comedy to tragedy and back again in the blink of an eye. Ultimately La Maupin’s story is uplifting, but it’s not without more than a few bumps in the road, and we feel every single one of them right alongside her.
So perhaps you might not know much about Julie going in, but you’ll certainly know her by the time you leave, humming any one of the seriously catchy choruses (be warned, there are a lot of songs – arguably a couple too many, but they’re all so infectious that I wouldn’t begin to know which ones to cut) and wanting to immediately know more about this fascinating, trailblazing woman who history for some reason has decided isn’t worth our time. With all love and respect to the wonderful Lion and Unicorn, this is a show and a story that deserve a much bigger stage – here’s hoping they find one.
La Maupin continues at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 3rd December.
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