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JULIE: The Musical at The Hope Mill Theatre

The show is a tad aggressive in the first half, with the audience on two separate occasions practically being ordered to show their appreciation. “You clap now!” is a bizarre way to build rapport, and the thought crossed my mind to fold my arms in protest. Anyway, the narrative in the musical centres around the life of Julie d’Aubigny (1673-1707), a version of which is played by Sam Kearney-Edwardes, who also plays a version of the show’s composer, lyricist and writer Abey Bradbury, with repeated assertions that it’s their play and therefore they are at liberty to do what they will with it. I’m not sure what to make, either, of the disparaging of other shows that allegedly have ‘boring’ and ‘tedious’ expositions, especially as no examples are given.

Julie the Musical. Credit Andrew AB Photography
Julie the Musical. Credit Andrew AB Photography

There is, apparently, only one major deviation from events that actually happened in d’Aubigny’s life, at least according to accounts from her contemporaries. Purists, perhaps as ever, will find much that rankles them – did they really use microphones at the start of the eighteenth century, for instance? It is, frankly, rather like criticising the West End production of Les Misérables, or indeed this show, for having French characters who all sing in English. Historical verisimilitude also goes out of the window when it comes to the costumes. The cast all play instruments, providing gloriously sustained displays of actor-musicianship. As they took their positions on stage before the show got underway, they looked to me like entrants in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Indeed, the evening felt a little like Eurovision – there wasn’t an hour or more of vote results being rattled through, but there was an incredible mix of different musical styles. Structurally, the show is deliberately messy, with interjections and interruptions that gave the feel that d’Aubigny wasn’t in total control of her story after all. The production has an acquired sense of humour – I’m pleased to report I eventually acquired it. Even so, it is incredibly hammy in parts, and some of the narrative points are somewhat overlaboured. Did we really need to be told a convent in Avignon, in line with every religious institution, exists ‘for the love of God’, quite so many times?

The other four actors play at least fourteen other characters between them, and despite the grassroots feel of the production, there are several members of the French nobility in the mix. Not that d’Aubigny cared much for social status, with one of her lovers, Amelie (Fabien Soto Pacheco, who has an excellent falsetto) being, according to the programme, “a merchant’s daughter who looks great in a nun’s habit”. Alexander Tilley’s scene-stealer moments went down well with the audience, while Sophie Coward and Georgia Liela Stoller were as good at portraying boisterous moments as they were poignant ones.

For a show about a woman who pursued a career in the opera, it is perhaps a tad surprising to discover there is no operatic content in it. (Well, there is, sort of, in the last couple of minutes of the interval.) Kearney-Edwardes’ narrator is almost at pains to emphasise that it’s not strictly necessary and nobody came to hear arias and recitatives as the Paris Opera would have performed them anyway. It’s the sort of musical that would work well at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and has indeed performed there, and has been revised and expanded for this tour. Proceeding at a moderately brisk pace, there are no big scene changes to contend with, with the set remaining largely as it is throughout. There’s ultimately nothing wrong with little asides to the audience such as, “We’re in the opera house now”, just so the audience is all on the same page.

Despite an abrasive start, this is ultimately a celebration of someone who wasn’t here for a long time but rather a good time. The musical’s clarion call to be more Julie and embrace life to the full irrespective of life’s challenges is loud and clear. A quirky and curious production best enjoyed by those looking for something unusual.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Julie D’Aubigny is down in history as one of the most chaotic characters to have ever lived – one of the first public figures to live as an openly bisexual woman, she seduced nuns, duelled multiple men at once, burnt down convents, was bribed by princes, innovated opera – all before she turned 30!

Featuring Live Music, Comedy, Tap Dancing Sword Fights, Twerking Nuns, Kazoo Choruses…and that’s just the first half hour…

JULIE: The Musical celebrates this extraordinary life, queerness and carving a place for yourself in a world not built for you.

JULIE: The Musical
20th June 2023 – 24th June 2023
https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/

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