With Joan of Leeds, devising theatre company Breach Theatre creates a breakneck medieval comedy-musical that soars high, but fails to stick the landing.
Evoking those dodgy church hall productions we’ve all endured at Christmas, the play is presented as a shoddy historical tale by a fictional amateur dramatics group, complete with awkward scene changes and flimsy cardboard sets. Our protagonist, Joan of Leeds, is forced into a nunnery because of her salacious visions, and it isn’t long before she develops feelings for a fellow nun, in this stirring look at suppressed female sexuality.
The jokes land thick and fast, and it’s clear the cast had a lot of fun creating the scenes, changing the genre of the play at the drop of a cardinal hat. As we follow Joan’s coerced commitment to God and her subsequent attempts to escape her confined lifestyle, we are often reminded that we are watching a play within a play – complete with unfinished costume changes, constant banging of heads on hanging set-pieces and the occasional fluffed line – but the façade fades away during later sections of the play. Instead, we reach a confused finale where a subplot involving a pushy director comes to a head without ever really gathering steam. There are bold attempts at varying storytelling devices, but it’s sad to say that several fall flat, including a sorely misjudged montage sequence that goes on far too long without saying much at all.
One aspect of the play that shines, however, is the musicality. Each member of the cast hops effortlessly between instruments, combining excellent musical ability with gorgeous choral singing. If only Joan of Leeds’ songs were as consistent as the musicians – a sexy solo from Alex Roberts as the biblical Serpent steals the show, only slightly outshone by one of the best musical sex scenes you’ll ever see on stage, but the repeated Latin chorus lost its impact with every repetition, and a patter song for Olivia Hirst’s character fails to do her lovely voice justice.
Special mention has to made for the set design, lovingly capturing the essence of those home-made, shoestring budget productions. One particular set change – which we won’t spoil here – had the whole audience in stitches with its simple yet effective reveal. The decision to keep the wings uncovered allowed for further hilarity, from half-clothed actors shuffling under the stage to the put-upon stage manager trying to contain the chaos.
The actors, too, brought their A-game across the board, though kudos has to be given in particular to Laurie Jamieson, whose comic timing was as impeccable as his eccentric characters, and to Rachel Barnes, whose incredible singing voice and natural acting talent bring to mind a young Jane Horrocks.
You can’t fault Breach Theatre’s ambition with Joan of Leeds, but in all the fun of making the comedy, they lost the essence of an interesting story and satisfying conclusion. Still, when the comedy lands, it really lands, and it’s clear this is a company with bags of talent who are still more than worth your time.
Main Image Credit: The Other Richard