Earlier this year, the University of York uncovered the story of a 14th Century nun who tired of the convent life and dramatically faked her own death to escape. The story has been seized upon by Breach Theatre, who have form with unearthing and presenting unusual and noteworthy true stories from history. The show Joan Of Leeds takes the form of a bawdy show-within-a-show, as the story is presented by the Yorkshire Medieval Players. The whole of Billy Barrett’s production has a calculatedly endearing amateur flavour, from the painted cardboard sets to the now de rigeur fluffing of lines expected of the show-within-a-show genre-within-a-genre.
The cast of five, led by Bryony Davies as Joan, are on musical duties too, bringing James Frewer’s songs to life. The tone is decidedly modern and anarchic, which meshes well with the inherent ridiculousness of a true story that involves constructing a decoy corpse. For the most part, the silly humour hits its mark (script by Barrett and Ellice Stevens), and the enjoyable daftness is spiked with the show’s laser focus on Joan’s sexual and feminist awakening. The show clocks in at a high-energy 70 minutes and feels like a fresh and illuminating take on an old tale (even if it is new to us). It’s not without its minor issues, however – the sound levels made the fast-paced lyrics hard to pick up at times, which is a shame as they benefited from the same sharpness as the rest of the show, and a few of the gags seemed to misfire, an admittedly minor quibble for a show with such a high gag quota, and success rate. A mid-show scene quick scene change produced probably my biggest laugh in a theatre of this year, though the (beautifully-scored) sequence that followed it felt like it had difficulty making both its dramatic impact and its humour land simultaneously.
What happened to the real Joan is unrecorded by history. But Breach’s production initially runs with a bleakly probable scenario, before slamming the brakes and rewriting the ending. At the time it struck me as a square peg in a round hole – a happy ending where a happy ending wouldn’t be. But on reflection it feels as astute as the rest of the show – an assertion that we don’t necessarily get happy endings unless we step in and make them happen. Highly recommended.