Anyway you look at it, the concept of The Vaults’ Mulan Rouge – a dinner/cabaret mashup of Disney’s Mulan and musical Moulin Rouge – is both exciting and bonkers. But definitely bonkers.
Deep beneath Waterloo station’s Platform 1, The Vaults (and its predecessor the Old Vic Tunnels) has been the home to shows every bit as creative and wild as the Leake Street graffiti which greets its visitors. What were dark and dank passageways have been converted into performance spaces that house the annual Vaults Festival (sadly cancelled for the last two years) as well as individual shows and plays.
As in her eponymous film, Mulan (Ella Cumber) has an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, her family desperately want her to get married; on the other, her sick father has been called up to the IFU army to help deal with an attack by the Huns. She slashes through this Gordian knot by disguising herself as a man and taking her father’s place alongside General Lee (Carmella Brown), Private Dancer (Helena Fox) and Major Inconvenience (Lizzy Cox).
The troops are sent on a mission to a rather unusual battlefront, the Moulin Rouge in Paris, where they join forces with Madame (Ruby Wednesday) and her go-go girls Roxy (Brett Sinclair), Ruby (Daisy Porter), and Ginger (Grace Kelly Miller). Mulan and Ginger soon hit it off and, after much singing, dancing and fingersnaps, the enemy is seen off and love conquers all.
Writer ShayShay, founder of the pan-Asian cabaret collective Bitten Peach, does very well to balance social commentary with lashings of humour. Modern attitudes to gender, sexuality and race are all put into the mix in an intelligent and light-handed way which doesn’t condescend. The witty wordplay and cracking malapropisms (“new direction”/”nude erection”) are joyful and the finale – involving a huge inflatable penis accompanied by a raucous singalong to Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger – is simply sensational. While the camp panto-like gags can often be unsubtle, obvious and cheesier than a vat of fondue, that’s all part of the fun in a show which takes no prisoners and demands your attention from the off.
There’s a cheeky charm to the acting here with no disappointments and much to enjoy. Cumber’s Mulan leads the ensemble with aplomb and is highly engaging, especially in her scenes with Brown and Miller (the other two sides of the love triangle which develops). Veteran London cabaret artiste Ruby Wednesday brings supreme levels of sass, charm and a divine voice to proceedings.
The set design is a kind of reverse-traverse affair with stages at opposite ends of the main hall. The audience sit on long trestle tables with the action happening to their left or right, depending on which stage is being used. This works well in the main but we could see this being less than ideal for those sat at the very end of tables. Foodwise, there is little to complain about. The Flavourology chefs were happy and able to deal with any dietary requirements we threw at them (including vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose-free and FODMAP) and what’s served up blends classic French cuisine with fresh Asian flavours to very tasty effect.
Unashamedly wearing its identity politics and low humour on its sleeve, the highly entertaining Mulan Rouge is not for everyone – but what is?
Mulan Rouge continues at The Vaults is booking until August 28th.
Image: Damien Frost