Two things concerned me about La Maupin. Firstly, to all intents and purposes it’s a musical, which, in my opinion, are the work of an evil mastermind trying to destroy society one song at a time. Secondly, and much more concerning, I was enjoying it! Something was amiss in the world.
Let’s address the musical element first. It’s described as “a folk punk play with songs” rather than a musical. Maybe that’s a better description that could encourage other non-musical theatre fans along. The music is performed by the incredibly talented cast of five, (unfortunately, no list of who plays who appears available), Frida Rodbroe, Katrina Michaels, Megan Armitage, Olivia Thompson and Olivia Warren.) Between them they play a variety of instruments; violin, accordion, flute, harmonica, ukulele, even a kazoo makes an appearance, amusingly as a cigarette at one point. We are literally surrounded by the sound of their music. It’s a mix of folksy, shanties, a little punk and whatever lies inbetween. It is, at times, a joyful racket, whilst at others, intimate and delicate. It is simply fantastic to watch them perform, play and sing.
The remarkable story is that of Julie La Maupin, a 17th Century French woman. As we’re told at the start, as extraordinary as her life was, it still only musters 708 words on Wikipedia! Well, this show certainly makes up for that. We first join her fleeing a death sentence for the minor crime of burning down a convent whilst freeing her lover. It’s then a whirlwind of more lovers and duels before she finds herself as an opera singer. And hot on her heels throughout is a man determined to see her pay for her crimes. It is all utterly ridiculous and unbelievable. Except that it is apparently (mostly) true!
Performing in the round adds to the intimacy and playfulness, drawing us even closer, especially when the cast sit amongst us when not centre stage, often playing instruments and joining in with the ensemble singing. There’s a wild carefree feel to it all, which belies the precision required. The staging also means there is limited space, especially when all five are present, so director Suzy Catliff and movement consultant Steve Elias do an incredible job of ensuring they don’t trip over each other, especially as they wield instruments.
The show does need some refinement. Instruments occasionally drown out the singing, and whilst performing in the round adds plenty, it would benefit with adjustments to avoid prolonged back watching or missing charming details (hint: sit on the right-hand side when you go in, your neck will thank you). The story could also do with a little work, especially when La Maupin and her pursuer eventually come together. This should be the grand conclusion, and yet it’s more a whimper than the big bang it deserves. Dare I suggest the story might even benefit from losing the whole pursuer element? And lastly, with the cast (except for La Maupin) all playing multiple parts, perhaps a little costuming to help differentiate characters would help keep track of who is who. But these are all minor issues easily addressed if (and oh I do hope so) this show is picked up for a future bigger run.
La Maupin really is a wonderful play. You can really imagine it becoming a major hit given the right opportunities. Iron out the little issues and this is undoubtably a five star show that will dazzle and delight a whole new audience. If only all musicals were this totally bonkers, maybe I would reconsider my belief that they should be banished from existence.
Written by: Olivia Thompson
Directed by: Suzy Catliff
Design by: Robin Soutar
Movement Consultant: Steve Elias
Produced by: Fantastic Garlands Theatre
La Maupin plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 3 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.