Delving into the entertaining depths of undersung queer historical figures, new musical La Maupin proves to be a rip-roaring success at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre
“If anyone mentions cassoulet again, I’ll disembowel them with my toasting fork”
Whilst the Comte de Limoges might disagree, any show that mentions the deliciousness that is cassoulet is a winner in my book. It just so happens that Fantastic Garlands’ new show La Maupin is pretty darn fantastic in and of itself as well. Posited as a folk-punk musical, it tells the story of the raucous life and riotous times of Julie D’Aubigny – a nun-smuggling, sword-fighting, opera-singing LGBTQ+ icon-in-the-making who, predictably, history has chosen to neglect. A multi-roling, multi-instrumenting company of five take us the length and breadth of 18th century France as her very own Javert-eque nemesis (said Comte) pursues her and all the while, an outrageously toe-tappingly tuneful set of songs establish this as a superbly realised piece of musical theatre.
With so much derring-do to pack in, the show – written by Olivia Thompson – is less a history lesson and more a personal odyssey of a remarkable figure determined to do things her own way, regardless of the cost. And as she battles against any number of establishment figures, feckless guardians, drunken aristos, stuffy theatre managers, gropy tenors, there’s this unerring feeling of authenticity to her every action as she constantly rolls with the punches in an extremely unpredictable life. It is thrilling to watch – this swashbuckling with purpose – and London theatre debutant Frida Rødbroe is magnetic in the role, ferociously uncompromising but enough of a glint in their eye to make one think it would be worth the heartbreak to just throw your lot in with them too.
A large part of that also comes with the gloriously genial score. There’s a cracking sense of musical identity at work here, leaning into folk-inspired melodies that sound like they’ve been sung in Irish pubs for decades and so often leaving you wanting to hear them again as soon as they’re done. The string-heavy instrumentation allows for smooth switches from jaunty to tear-jerking, accordions, flutes, kazoos and something I didn’t recognise but loved add points of interest, counterpoint drives us to a thrilling Act 1 climax, harmonies give goosebumps at the tender end, there’s even Brandi Carlile influences on the sublime letter to a lost love ‘Golden Girl’. The last scores I felt this enthused by were Hadestown and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and they were both top shows of their respective years.
Thompson’s writing also does an excellent job in speaking to the moment with a skilfully light but still considered touch. A beautifully written passage sees La Maupin rail against societal norms and assert her right to decide what name she will use. Another reminds us – as if it were necessary – that the Me Too movement has been needed in the arts industry for centuries now. And there’s a (possibly coincidental) tip of the chapeau to the Bury Your Gays trope which points out that sometimes, gay people do just die. Suzy Catliff’s direction also brims with invention and innovation. Switching the already intimate auditorium into the round creates a wonderfully convivial atmosphere that feels so inclusive, the way duels are depicted is delightful, the overall sense of play facilitated by Robin Soutar’s design works a treat.
And she’s gathered a brilliant company around Rødbroe. Olivia Warren, Megan Armitage, Katrina Michaels and Thompson herself form an exceptional ensemble, flowing in and out of supporting roles and their tangled, varied emotional connections to La Maupin, playing multiple instruments with real skill, and also handling the proximity to the audience well. It can sometimes be a little disconcerting to be so close to performers but the warmth here, that inclusivity is so freely offered that it is impossible to resist the amour fou of La Maupin. I’ve already booked to go again and you’d be wise to book as well. If I have anything to do with it (and even if I don’t), I strongly suspect this is far from the last we will hear of this fantastic new British musical.