Joan of Leeds – New Diorama Theatre, London

Writers: Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett

Composer: James Frewer

Director: Billy Barrett

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Despite being set in the 14th Century, this crude musical is hot off the press. It was only earlier this year that this story of a runaway nun was uncovered by an historian in the University of York’s archive of archbishops’ registers. Theatre company Breach have come up with their own ideas to why Joan fled the convent, but this re-imagining brings mixed results.

A letter from 1318 describes how Joan was so eager to escape the religious life that she faked her own death with the help of a dummy that she had made. The Archbishop suggests that Joan renounced her life of ‘poverty and obedience’ to engage in ‘carnal lust’. It’s not known whether she was ever found and taken back to the convent, but Breach are happy to fill in the gaps of this medieval story.

Unfortunately, the archives and letters are more fascinating than Breach’s version of events, which often seem juvenile and silly. Their Joan (Bryony Davies) is dragged to a nunnery after making out with a man (Laurie Jamieson) who she meets in a potato field. She adjusts to her new life, but when she meets the man from the field again, her libido is reawakened. She plans her escape with the help of another nun.

It’s a simple story, but Breach retell it through the framework of a travelling mystery play, and the set, designed by Lizzy Leech and pleasingly makeshift, conjures up hastily erected stages on village greens. In a tiresome metatheatrical twist not all the actors are prepared and so lines are forgotten and cues are ignored. Indeed, another title for this show might have been The Mystery Play That Goes Wrong.

The actors do well, but they also try too hard to be funny with the result that every line and song is delivered at the same lewd level. It all becomes wearisome after awhile. Only one section is not given this overblown treatment and that is the point when Joan finds herself in a modern day kitchen, and her dreary life is imaginatively told in a finely choreographed piece. It would be good to see more scenes like this from this young theatre company.

Playing instruments to a backing track, the actors create quite a noise and occasionally it’s hard to make out the lyrics, most of which are delivered at speed. The songs aren’t that memorable, apart from All Night Long, which is performed with gusto by Rachel Barnes, and the heavy rock of the last song is a nice surprise.

A lot of thought has been put into this play, even the Eastern Orthodox Christian saints Sergius and Bacchus appear, but much of the research is undermined by the relentlessly coarse humour. This is the New Diorama’s alternative Christmas show but this year there are plenty of alternative Christmas shows to be found.

Runs until 21 December 2019 | Image: The Other Richard

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Medieval Mystery

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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