Review: La Maupin at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Fantastic Garlands

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 Frida 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 Olivia 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.

Photo credit: Fantastic Garlands

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.

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Rose Theatre

Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s new production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy is a lot of things – fresh, modern, fast-paced. But above all else, it’s really good fun; the two hours fly by in a blink and leave you wanting to go and watch it again almost immediately. There are plenty more things to say (otherwise this would be a very short review), but that’s the main takeaway – everyone on stage and off is having a great time from start to finish.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wilde’s plot is complex and chaotic, full of mistaken identities, unlikely coincidences and outrageous snobbery. Jack (Justice Ritchie) is in love with Gwendolen (Adele James), the cousin of his friend Algernon (Abiola Owokonira) and daughter of the indomitable Lady Bracknell (Daniel Jacob). Algernon, meanwhile, falls for Jack’s ward Cecily (Phoebe Campbell). But despite both women returning their admirers’ affections, an “insuperable barrier” stands in the way of their unions – and it’s probably not what you might expect.

There must now be countless adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest, a testament to the play’s enduring appeal – and even those who’ve never seen it will be familiar with such immortal phrases as “A HANDBAG?!” It’s hard to imagine how another new production could possibly bring something new, but Westley-Sanderson, while remaining true to the original text (with a couple of small tweaks for comic effect), brings a fresh perspective not only to this story but to the audience’s understanding of Black history. The casting is no gimmick; Black people lived and thrived in Britain long before Windrush, and the assumption that Wilde’s characters must automatically be white is one that can and should be challenged. The production also introduces an element of gender fluidity, most notably in the now same-sex relationship between Dr Chasuble (Anita Reynolds) and Miss Prism (Joanne Henry), a small but refreshing edit that subtly modernises the play.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Under Westley-Sanderson’s direction, the vivacious cast – which includes two actors making their professional debut – don’t put a foot wrong. Abiola Owokonira and Justice Ritchie are a joyous comedy double act as Algernon and Jack, Phoebe Campbell’s Cecily is delightfully forward, and Daniel Jacob (aka Drag Race UK‘s Vinegar Strokes) is quite the force to be reckoned with as Lady Bracknell. Special mention also to Valentine Hanson, who plays the two butlers, Merriman and Lane – he doesn’t get a lot of lines, but proves to be an expert in physical comedy and steals more than one scene without saying a word.

Designer Lily Arnold brings us a visually sumptuous production – a versatile set hides more than one secret, and the costumes are all exquisite (Jack’s absurd mourning outfit is a particular highlight). The action moves at a rapid pace, but never leaves the audience behind; we’re all right there with the characters every step of the way – and occasionally enjoy the delicious privilege of being one step ahead of them. All in all, this is simply a hugely entertaining and joyfully silly production that it’s difficult not to fall in love with, but it’s also a thoughtful and considered adaptation of a well-known classic.

The Importance of Being Earnest is at Rose Theatre until 12th November.

Review: Daddy Issues at Seven Dials Playhouse

Written by Lewis Cornay and performed by Bebe Cave, Daddy Issues is a deceptively tough watch. It begins with a funeral for a dead dog, but before too long it becomes apparent that what this story is really about is a dead dad – and the confused, grieving daughter he left behind.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

It’s Halloween, and Imi (not Imogen) is live streaming to an initially indifferent public in memory of her late dog, Roger. As she reminisces about his tragically short life, she’s constantly interrupted by a disembodied male voice that it’s obvious only she can hear. This, we soon learn, is her father, who after years of battling depression, killed himself one year ago today. Over the course of the next hour, all Imi’s feelings of guilt, loss and anger will come spilling out for all the world to see – and it turns out the world wants to see, because as Imi falls apart, her viewer numbers finally begin to climb. Little comment is made about this, but by letting us see the numbers creeping upwards on a screen at the back of the stage, we’re allowed to draw our own conclusions about the dangers of social media, especially for the most vulnerable.

Having read the synopsis above, it may come as a surprise to learn that the play is billed as a comedy (albeit a dark one). But it’s important to note that Cornay never makes light of the play’s subject matter; all the humour – and there is plenty of it – comes from Imi herself, who makes jokes as a defence against her own darkness. This means that we like and can relate to her, and as a result what happens later in the play has a far greater emotional impact. Bebe Cave is excellent throughout, at first capturing to perfection the bright, brittle tones of someone playing to the camera, and later visibly unravelling in front of our eyes as she realises she can’t hide from reality, no matter how hard she tries.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

All the action takes place in the “granny annex” where Imi now lives, both literally and metaphorically distancing herself from the people who might be able to help her. Designer Andrew Exeter makes strong use of lighting to distinguish between Imi’s outer and inner monologues, and director Jane Moriarty has Cave very naturally cover every inch of the space, like a caged animal desperately seeking escape. With a storm brewing and the sea that played a key role in Imi’s bereavement lapping the shore just outside, the tension is palpable throughout.

Daddy Issues is a well written and brutally honest depiction of grief and depression, fuelled by a totally compelling performance which showcases all the emotions that come with bereavement, but which we may often not feel it’s appropriate to voice. Imi is falling apart while the internet watches on, but she’s also being open, perhaps for the first time, about how her dad’s suicide has affected her – and it’s in these moments that the play is at its most powerful. Not an easy watch, but well worth a visit.

Daddy Issues is at Seven Dials Playhouse until 19th November.

Review: A Single Man at Park Theatre

Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood and adapted by Simon Reade, A Single Man follows a day in the life of George (Theo Fraser Steele), a middle-aged British professor living in Los Angeles, as he wakes, goes to work, visits a friend, has dinner with another, encounters one of his students in a bar, and finally falls into bed back at home. It’s a regular day in many ways, and yet each of these everyday activities is coloured by George’s grief following the recent sudden death of his partner Jim – even more so because, as a gay man in the 1960s, he feels unable to mourn publicly for the man he loved – and his need to try and rediscover meaning in a life that now feels empty.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

A Single Man is very deliberately not an action-packed story, but the pace of Philip Wilson’s production in Act 1 is nonetheless quite brisk, taking us through the routine business of the day before settling into a slower rhythm after the interval. This makes sense, as the evening is when George has his two most meaningful encounters of the day: first, a dinner with his friend Charley (Olivia Darnley), a fellow Brit mourning a different kind of loss, and second, a seemingly chance encounter with Kenny (Miles Molan), a student with whom George feels an unexpected connection. However it also makes the earlier events feel rather throwaway – particularly his visit to see Doris (Phoebe Pryce), a young female friend who’s dying in hospital; we never see her again after her one brief appearance, and her relationship with George is never fully explained.

All five members of the cast give strong performances, with Theo Fraser Steele expertly conveying both George’s isolation and his capacity for warmth – though, intentionally or otherwise, his close similarities to Colin Firth (who played the role in Tom Ford’s 2009 movie adaptation) are so prominent that they can at times become distracting and invite unnecessary comparisons. Olivia Darnley is excellent as Charley, masking her own fragility behind a lighthearted facade, Miles Molan makes an impressive professional debut as both Kenny and Jim, and Phoebe Pryce and Freddie Gaminara provide versatile support as various other characters George comes into contact with throughout his day.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

Caitlin Abbott’s powerfully versatile set provides just enough to give us an idea of our surroundings, but is ultimately dominated by a large concrete block which ensures no matter where George goes, death is never far from his, or the audience’s, thoughts. There’s little of California in the set design, and yet through George’s eloquent descriptions, the city of LA almost becomes another character – one to which he clings because to leave it would be to leave behind the life he shared with Jim.

Those who are familiar with Isherwood’s novel (or Ford’s movie) will be better placed to discuss the quality of this particular adaptation – but for those who are new to George’s story, this is a high quality production that sensitively explores the insidiousness and loneliness of grief. Aspects of the plot may sit uncomfortably for a 21st century audience, but the play’s central themes remain as relevant as ever.

A Single Man is at Park Theatre until 26th November.

Review: Apples in Winter at the Playground Theatre

Miriam’s making an apple pie for her son. She’s made it countless times before – when he was a child, a teenager and a man… but this time is different. This time she’s in a prison kitchen, preparing the pie that her son’s requested as a final meal before his execution. As a clock ruthlessly ticks down the minutes on the wall behind her, Miriam pours all her hurt and grief into the last thing she’ll ever do for the child she loved, lost and found again only when it was too late to save him.

The premise of Jennifer Fawcett’s play is hard-hitting enough, but in the right hands it becomes absolutely devastating – and it’s hard to imagine hands more right than those of actor Edie Campbell. What’s important about Miriam is that she’s a nice lady, one you’d never expect to find in these circumstances, and Campbell radiates warmth and kindness from the moment she appears on stage. We like her, and so when her mask slips and we glimpse the pain beneath the smile, we feel it too. And as her reflections build gradually to a crescendo of rage and despair – against the system, against her son, and most of all against herself – we feel every single moment of it with her. It’s upsetting for all sorts of reasons, but largely because Miriam could be anyone’s mother; if such a horrific thing can happen to her, why not to any of us?

Whatever your views about the death penalty going in, it’s hard to watch Apples in Winter and not come away from it feeling sickened by a system that claims to offer justice but in fact does the exact opposite. 22 years after his crime, it’s difficult to think what Robert’s death can possibly achieve besides causing more suffering to more people, perpetuating a cycle of violence and revenge that should have ended long ago. And it’s hard to imagine what kind of life his mother will be going back to after today, knowing everything that she’s lost, and is about to lose, as a result of her son’s crime and punishment. The pie – prepared and baked on stage during the performance – might be perfect but everything else is shattered beyond repair, and the play’s last line, spoken with a heartbreaking finality, leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence for several moments after the lights go down.

I could probably write an essay on the quality of Fawcett’s writing, which is both sensitive and brutal in its exploration of a difficult topic. It raises so many points about not only the death penalty, but about family, and loss, and the failings of a society that drives people to crime and then denies them any opportunity for redemption. Director Claire Parker lets these words breathe, punctuating the production with moments of silence that give Miriam time alone with her thoughts, and the audience a chance to digest and process what we’ve heard. The play is also followed every evening by a post-show discussion, which provides further opportunity to explore the themes and impact of the play.

All I can really say about Apples in Winter is that it’s really, really good, with an immensely powerful one-woman performance from Edie Campbell that will leave you feeling shaken and devastated and furious. An absolute must-see.

Apples in Winter is at the Playground Theatre until 15th October.