It was love at first sight, a stunning exploration of gender identity, that was as inclusive as it was tongue in cheek. Drag Kings, Drag Queens, and non-binary performers in a dazzling queer immersive cabaret show, were a heavenly delight. For The Vaults was no ordinary theatre, tucked away in the graffiti scrawled Leake Street Arches, where art, creativity, and culture came to play in one mesmerizing sweep. They would leave their gender at the door and let go of all inhibitions. This was a safe space, where people were free to be their authentic selves. There was no judgement here, only a welcoming hand that plunged you into its LGBTQIA+ friendly multiverse, where labels were eradicated, and pride was strong. Whether you were gender-fluid, Trans, Bisexual, or an ally to the community (as A was), The Vaults welcomed all. A remembered a few years ago, before the pandemic when she watched Red Palace at The Vaults. It was a deliciously twisted fairy-tale where the carnivalesque, and the gothic met in devilish unison, a night to remember. Could Mulan Rouge, and its promise of raunchy fabulosity live up to the hype?
And so, the unicorn Princess, and her Prince waltzed up to the Vaults, a vision in purple. A unicorn crown stood proudly on her brow, while a beautiful purple polka dot dress, paired with platforms took centre stage. She was never one to hide away, or be subtle, and was a proud ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, as was her partner. D, like A embraced all, and was understanding of sexuality, gender identity, and pronouns. It wasn’t as though he had a choice. In the three years that they had been together, A had made him watch every season of Drag Race, taken him to drag shows (including drag shows by Drag Kings and non-binary/ gender-fluid performers), and proudly advocated for the LGBTQIA+ community. Why? Because A felt at home in the community. She felt loved, accepted, and embraced, like she had never felt in mainstream culture. She dressed different, she looked different, and she thought differently. She was proudly outspoken, and believed that the community were incredibly kind, creative, fun, and talented.
A knew that Mulan Rouge would be her cup of tea, but she didn’t know the extent of her obsession. It was almost as though the world around her had quietened, and she had leapt into Mulan Rouge, like she was one of the actors herself. From the moment they entered The Vaults, the air crackled, expectations running high, coursing through their bodies and minds. For one night only, there would be a night of storytelling, as they drank, ate and chortled with abandon. There were no limitations here, no ifs and buts. Just a gorgeously produced cabaret production, that was joyous, drag-tastic, and undeniably infectious. It was smart, witty, profound yet silly, a sublime celebration of gender, love, and pride, rolled all in one. This was no one-dimensional cabaret show, but a fully-fledged show, that was immersive, and interactive.
Who did she have to thank for this incredible theatre show? Why only the queen of all things ‘pop ups’, the glorious Jo. Owner of Love Pop Ups London, Jo, together with the Vaults brought together foodies, theatre enthusiasts, drag obsessionists, style queens, and travel lovers to witness the beauty that was the Mulan Rouge. A could remember waiting impatiently, almost antsy in the kitsch neon disco bar upstairs, desperate to plunge straight into Mulan Rouge, and laugh the night away. But nevertheless, Leakeys bar and club was worth mentioning; Pineapple Milk Punch dancing on wooden tables. Blues, greens, and yellow floor tiles lit up with luminous lights, an Apricot Sour down the throat. It was a glorious bar, that A made a note to came back to, at a later date. But for now, Mulan Rouge, and its veil of delicious haze awaited.
Directed and written by the impeccable ShayShay, A and D were transported from the get-go. Described as a mix between Disney’s ‘Mulan’, and the raunchy cabaret ‘Moulin Rouge’, Mulan straddled the boundary between whimsy, and sensuality. There was the Disney esque elements (the musical interludes, the naive sense of wonder, and glamour), mixed with Moulin, oh so effortlessly. A didn’t know how ShayShay did it, but somehow, they managed to merge both storylines, while making Mulan Rouge seem ‘fresh and new’. The Vaults was always known for pushing the envelope, but this was undoubtably her favourite excursion yet. It was a dragtastic parody that was as meaningful as it was fun. Beyond the naughty jokes, and debauchery, was a keen message. Never be afraid to love who you love. Don’t be scared to be the person you have always dreamed of becoming. Don’t let others define who you are. Above all, stay proud. Stay proud in your gender, identity, sexuality, and who you are.
Taking place across two stages, Mulan Rouge begins in a small room, where Mulan laments her story. Played by Ella Cumber, they tell the audience how they must find a husband, or face the wrath of their family, and ancestors (aka the audience). The ancestors sip on their cocktails, as they lean forward to hear Mulan speak. They too had been in relationships due to social, financial, economic, or peer pressure, and knew how it felt. What was so wrong about being single, or unmarried? But things weren’t gloomy for long, as lo and behold, the ancestors knew how to solve all her problems. Why only a Blind Date, hosted by Madame (Ruby Wednesday), would be the ticket. After all, what’s life without a husband? Sarcasm obviously.
Mulan’s version of Blind Date commences, and the ancestors get involved. But alas, despite their best recommendations, including A’s own partner D, there was no solace to be found. Still, Mulan Rouge was more than just a game of blankety blank. There is war, and Mulan is determined to go in their father’s place, and fight. After all, The Huns are coming, and are poised to attack. Mulan, being the kind soul that they are, wants to bring honour to the family name, and fight for freedom. And so, Cumber, invites their ancestors into a new world, on their journey to Paris, France. Where the first stage was small, filled with wooden boxes, the second room is a spectacle, a feast for the senses.
It was everything that A had dreamed it to be, opulence, grandeur, and naughtiness wound into one production. Where there were inhibitions, and a sense of restraint in the first act, the second act is more liberal, freeing, and open. Set against a giant lit-up windmill, glowing in red and purple lights, Mulan has entered a new world far removed from their own. Disguised as a solider, this act is a beautiful exploration of gender identity, and sexuality. The actors embrace their queer identities with pride and redefine ‘war culture’. Here, there are no gruff generals, but glamorous drag artists, and androgynous soldiers. A adored Drag Queens, but it was so refreshing to see a drag show that embraced what drag was on a spectrum. Drag Kings, non-binary performers, gender fluid actors. There was so much more to drag than met the eye, and despite its campy undertones, The Vaults rendition of ‘Mulan’ was surprisingly heart-warming.
A couldn’t pinpoint a favourite character, but she certainly had her favourite moments. There was Madame (Ruby Wednesday), who was impish, and tongue in cheek. They would constantly break the fourth wall, and get the audience involved, while the girls ran wild. Mulan too (Ella Cumber), was another highlight, whose transition from tomboy to disguised soldier, to trans man, was stunning. Realizing that he (at this point) had feelings for the spectacular Ginger, (Grace Kelly Miller) was a breakthrough, which the music transcended too. From the upbeat ‘Can’t Fight These Feeling’, to the classic ‘Lady Marmalade’, it was an absolute hoot. Set against explosions of celebratory colour, and stunning pop beats, it was irresistible from start to finish.
It wouldn’t be Mulan Rouge without an incredible cast, and A was mesmerized by their acting credentials. Including Ginger, there were the Go-Go Girls, Roxy (Brett Sinclair), and Ruby (Daisy Porter), who were witty, and alluring. The IFU soldiers (see what they did there?) were just as eye-catching, with General Lee (Carmella Brown), Private Dancer (Helena Fox), and Major Inconvenience (Lizzy Cox), having the audience in stitches. The night was already at an all-time high, but lo and behold, food was served. The banquet hall doubled as a traverse stage, and they ate, banquet style, transfixed. Admittedly, A never saw the food as the best part of an immersive theatre experience. After all, she was there to soak up the atmosphere and watch the show, but nevertheless she was poised waiting.
The Vaults took great care to look after A, and all her allergies, which she was touched by. She had been to many events where her allergies were an afterthought, and she had to miss out but not here. Though admittedly the choice of ‘celeriac’, for both the starter, and main might not have been the most creative, she appreciated them accommodating her. The meat eaters seemed to be more enthused by their ‘chicken main’, but A still enjoyed her food. After all, if she was a paying guest, she would be most excited about the show, rather than the food and drinks. Although the drinks themselves were certainly spectacular, and the perfect accompaniment to the cabaret show.
If A could describe Mulan in one word, it would be Fun with a capital F. Why? Because each performer was able to captivate the audience. and keep them in check. Every single actor had a chance to shine on the main stage and live their very best life. It was so joyful, that even the audience caught onto its infectious energy. Come rain or shine, they would lift your spirits and put a smile on your face, caressed with elation. A couldn’t stop grinning like a Cheshire Cat and forgot about everyone else on her table. She could see or hear nothing but The Vaults, and its riotous gender-bending party. Unlike many theatre shows, it was refreshing to see a celebration of queer love, that wasn’t tokenistic. Instead, it felt real, and the audience were invested in the characters love stories, A especially. It didn’t just challenge the norms of gender, and sexuality, but it embraced LGBTQIA+ love in a loving and profound way.
And so, the night drew to a close, the ancestors feeling like their mission was complete. It was never about finding Mulan a ‘husband’ or even about joining the war. It was about Mulan finding his true self, where he found love with Ginger, and love in himself. It was the realization that he was more than he believed himself to be. A man who loved another, who at the end, was proud in his identity. Labels or not, Mulan’s exploration of gender, sex, and sexuality, was exuberant. Sure, some might see it as ‘just a cabaret show’, but A believed it to be so much more. Perhaps, it would help other theatre goers who were unsure in their sexuality, to embrace what made them happy. Most of all, it changed the heteronormative conversation around ‘relationships’ and ‘love’, creating a queerer and undoubtably more fabulous world.
Would You Like To See Mulan Rouge At The Vaults?
Please note I was gifted this event at The Vaults in exchange for this blog post, but all thoughts are my own and are not affected by gifting. Below are some important details about The Vaults that you should know.
Written, Directed and Choreographed by ShayShay
Produced by The Vaults
Set and Costume by Christine Ting – Huan 挺欢 Urquhart
Lighting Design by Clancy Flynn
Sound Design by Daffyd Gough
Choreography by Alisa James
Mulan Rouge plays at The Vaults until 28 August.