Le Gasp Productions
Hope Mill Theatre
June 20-24; 2hr
(also at Hull Truck, June 30; Shakespeare North Playhouse, July 8-9; Leeds Carriageworks July 12-14)
A new musical about the life of a relatively unknown 17th Century French opera singer doesn’t sound like the recipe for a hit. My French companion was even unaware of the existence of composer Julie D'Aubigny. But regardless of that, this show is a joyous and life-affirming hit.
To be honest I don't understand why D'Aubigny's life hasn't been celebrated in legend and song long before now. The singer is believed to have also been an expert fencer who ran away with a murderer, had an affair with a woman, rescued said lover from a convent, burned a dead nun to cover their escape and slept with a man she beat in a duel.
Written and directed by Abey Bradbury, JULIE: The Musical is clearly a labour of love. But is so much more than a well-researched passion project; it is is a tribute to embracing your identity, queer culture and finding love – despite a life of opera-level drama.
If an "Act One Beginners" backstage call, played as the lights go down, knocks a hole in the third wall then the disgustingly talented cast breaks it to pieces. Sam Kearney-Edwardes, in the title role, addresses the audience with a hilarious explanatory monologue about awful explanatory monologues and we're away.
The show broadly tells d'Aubigny’s story chronologically – once the sleeping with a nun and burning the convent story is brought to life of course. The barely-believable life events rattle by, and a message of empowerment and sexual identity emerges.
The plot is simply constructed and the songs are rockily melodic but, ultimately, not hugely memorable. Think SIX without the hooks – not that it matters.
The show is elevated to another level by the players, who have created an extraordinary camaraderie, and a collaboration so natural and unforced that it feels like they have all known each other for years.
Bradbury’s writing is witty, touching and rude. The swearing is particularly top notch, and the audience asides and ad-libs are laugh-out-loud brilliant.
Opera might be largely absent from this tale, but music is at the heart of the narrative. It is easy to lose track of the number of instruments cast members pick up – everything from saxophones and accordions to castanets and even a kazoo. The instruments even become props. A drumstick as a walking aid and violin bows as swords are both clever appropriations.
JULIE’s cast also created and arranged the harmonies. They could be channelling Godspell in their musical storytelling – and that is very much intended to be a compliment.
It feels wrong to pick out individual performances from such a clever group of players, but Georgia Liela Stoller delivers something heartbreaking, while Alexander Tilley nearly steals the show with a hilarious routine. All cast members have brilliant comic timing, but Kearney-Edwardes is something else. They are a real talent – performers to watch.
Kudos also to Rebecca Cox’s design and the gorgeous corset-like costumes with a modern twist, created by Cox and Bradbury.
The set – backstage of the musical itself, it seems – is littered with old stage lights and French opera-inspired objects, which offer a perfect sense of place. The cast graffiti, with scribbled set-list, is a nice touch. There are enough brilliant elements here to forgive an over-long running time and the basic songs and book.
The story of Julie D'Aubigny deserves to be more widely known – and there can be no better starting place than Bradbury’s modern musical take.
More info and tickets here