Joan of Leeds

Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett
New Diorama Theatre

Joan of Leeds Credit: Breach
Olivia Hirst and Alex Roberts Credit: The Other Richard
Rachel Barnes, Alex Roberts, Bryony Davies, Laurie Jamieson and Olivia Hirst Credit: The Other Richard
Laurie Jamieson, Rachel Barnes and Bryony Davies Credit: The Other Richard
Alex Roberts and Rachel Barnes, Credit: The Other Richard

At the beginning of this year, historians discovered a note in the early fourteenth century records of the Archbishop of York that referred to a nun called Joan of York who faked her own death and with accomplices made a dummy body to be buried as her so that she could escape from her convent to have a life of carnality. That was the inspiration that prompted Breach to devise this jokey Christmastide offering.

The promotional image suggested quite a sophisticated, perhaps satirical result but in fact what we get is the self-styled Yorkshire Medieval Players in a romp that is primarily raucous rough theatre despite soothing patches of plainsong and a caustic glimpse of life as a kitchen-bound housewife.

Bryony Davies’s Joan is a girl who gets packed off to a nunnery after being caught having a tumble with Laurie Jamieson’s unnamed young fellow, led into sin by a devil who is not the elegant fallen angel Lucifer of the company’s flyer but a camp Alex Roberts in kinky red boots and a snakeskin-like onesie that leaves a bare leg and Halloween horns. He’s deliciously over the top and the rest of the company aren’t far behind him with Olivia Hirst as an outraged Archbishop and Rachel Barnes as the nun with whom Joan has a lesbian romance.

Like the French Joan, the one in this “medieval mystery musical” has a vision but the saints she sees are a pair of Roman soldier martyrs, gay partners who set her an example of same-sex love. They are probably Sergius and Bacchus (whose Feast Day you can celebrate on October 7) but this show is so fast and so noisy that I didn’t catch their names, nor quite a lot more of the dialogue and singing which has to compete with vigorous drumming.

Here is lots of hetero bonking after Joan escapes, jumping from the medieval to a present-day domestic setting, but Joan clearly prefers girls (though the orange habits of her order aren’t much of a turn-on). There is another vision later that saves Joan from burning—at least I think so—and she ends up a triumphant rock diva which delighted an enthusiastic young audience.

Joan of Leeds is a high-energy show full of tongue-in-cheek obscenity that is meant to be shockingly funny and seemed well matched to a student age audience. There is a deliberate amateur air exploited for its comedy value but it has all been very carefully thought out (even to the insertion of a pantomime audience exchange) and Lizzy Leech’s design makes its own comment. Playing full out for an hour plus, these actors never let up; even when technically offstage they are constantly performing. It may not seem it on the surface, but Billy Barrett’s direction makes it highly disciplined and, though the onslaught is a bIt overpowering, you can’t help but warm to this team.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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