Joan of Leeds
New Diorama Theatre
Reviewed – 9th December 2019
“A couple of the numbers were so camp, it was like watching a medieval Village People”
Joan Of Leeds was an English nun, who bored of her monastic life, feigned mortal illness, constructed a dummy of herself which was buried in holy ground and hot-footed it off to Beverley to shack up with a man. This account only came to light this year, when a research project into the Registry of the Archbishops Of York for 1305-1405, uncovered historical notes documenting this story.
Breach Theatre Company have done what any self-respecting group would do and turned it into a bawdy, medieval musical. Presenting themselves as The Yorkshire Medieval Players, the opening scene cleverly sets the tone for the fun and frolics ahead.
The set with a starry back cloth and cardboard clouds and an apple tree, looks a little ‘primary school’ and yet works perfectly with the style of the piece.
Joan, in this production, during a severe famine, is tempted by the devil and ends up in a convent where she falls in love with fellow nun Agnes. Refusing to admit her true feelings, she runs away to Beverley to live with the man who is in love with her. Interesting to see the ‘queer’ angle explored, although the world has changed beyond recognition in five hundred years, maybe human desires and feelings have not.
This is brilliantly directed by Billy Barrett who co-wrote the play with Ellice Stevens. Cast appeared on gantries, up trap doors, through curtains, each time delivering real attack and comic timing to the character they were portraying. With all the outrageous costumes and Python like silliness, it was easy to overlook some of the brilliantly constructed rhyming text, much of it as ingenious and lyrical as the musical numbers themselves.
The five strong cast were all terrific, Bryony Davies showing us angst, anger, vulnerability and bewilderment as the tormented Joan, Rachel Barnes, Olivia Hirst, Laurie Jamieson and Alex Roberts all matched her with their highly skilled performances.
One particularly clever scene change took the whole audience by surprise, only when we stepped into this domestic set, did the pace drop a little. Although I understood the purpose of the scene, this show is at its strongest when the five actors are bouncing off each other. They are all so musically talented and versatile, we were treated to musical styles from Broadway to madrigal to a jaw dropping, thrash metal finale. A couple of the numbers were so camp, it was like watching a medieval Village People.
Not your most traditional of seasonal shows and all the more enjoyable for this very reason. This is an extraordinary story, maybe one of the earliest demonstrations of ‘Girl Power’ from a most unexpected source.
Although Breach Theatre Company have adapted this story with their own unique style, if history lessons had been like this at school, I would never have missed a class.
Reviewed by Chris White
Photography by The Other Richard
Joan of Leeds
New Diorama Theatre until 21st December
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: