Joan

Lucy J Skilbeck

Milk Presents, in association with Derby Theatre

Contact Theatre, Manchester

From 14 February 2017 to 16 February 2017

Review by Mark Smith

Having returned from the Edinburgh Fringe with a clutch of awards and top-notch reviews, Milk Presents feels like a company growing in stature and swagger. This show itself is a case in point: it’s a bold imaginative leap to take the tale of Joan of Arc and couple it with a modern-day drag king act, and a sign of self-confidence to carry this out with such precision, feeling and fun.

The great success of this move is two-fold. Firstly, the writing and storytelling is more than equal to the tale told. Writer-director Lucy J Skilbeck (one of the core members of Milk Presents) treats the central story without irony, conveying movingly the story of Saint Joan’s passionate spirituality, her self-reinvention, and her moment of faltering at the stake.

The piece’s framing device sees this historical figure embodied in the persona(s) of award-winning drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson. The frame, along with Skilbeck’s supreme sensitivity of touch, subtly manages to imply parallels with contemporary questions of gender and belonging: the quest to find the right outward persona to match one’s inner identity and inconsistencies.

Parkinson herself is, then, the production’s second great strength—and what a strength she is. We witness this superbly gifted solo performer donning various male guises, turning the tone on several sixpences throughout the hour or so of the show, and making a total mastery of atmosphere look entirely effortless.

In doing so, Parkinson takes on the speedily but caringly constructed personas of various men in Joan’s life: her father (gruff, Northern), the French Dauphin Charles (hilariously Gallic, disco king) and the chief prosecutor Pierre Cauchon (spectacularly bewhiskered, ‘original Alpha’). These are played for laughs, but neatly distinguished, and each gets a song which combines clear storytelling with comic references, in a genre of its own.

Skilbeck’s compositions (in David Lewington’s musical arrangements) support these moments splendidly. The sound design as a whole is effective without being showy, providing gentle, subtle echoes of the worlds viscerally described by Parkinson’s narration and some well-managed and fun audience interaction.

As the performance progresses, we move between outgoing cabaret and deeply heartfelt drama. As Parkinson, and Joan, tries on the different personas the music shifts too, as if the dramaturgy of the piece itself was trying on different guises, trying to find a fit, or fit in. One moment of crisis is backed by a musical theatre number which is close enough to pastiche to be effective, but sincere enough to be moving.

This could be the calling-card for Parkinson’s transfixing performance, and for this impressive piece of cabaret-theatre as a whole. With a central performer so in control of the comedy and pathos of the piece, as adept when belting out tender songs to the absent, impossible Saint Catherine as when delivering a strident call to arms, as keen-witted in improvisation as she is sure-footed in the text, it’s impossible not to love Joan.