Looking pleased with themselves, the Yorkshire Medieval Players take to the snug stage. This is their Christmas play. It’s a scorcher, and they know it. Their set is painted and their tunics are bright (this is that rare play which gives nods to a carpenter as well as a habitmaker in its freesheet: William Aubrey Jones and Kate Peacham respectively). It’s time to talk about sin.
Specifically, the supposed sin of one Sister Joan, absconded from a convent after faking her own death in order to live with a man in 14th Century Yorkshire. Scant information on this Joan survives, but Breach is a company now adept at rewiring episodes from history till they go, go, go like a souped-up engine (It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Beanfield, Tank). As the Yorkshire Medieval Players, they present an intentionally shambolic but whole-hearted version of Joan’s life as it might have happened, you know, maybe.
It takes short work and some simple but fun choreography from a camp, snakeskin-clad Devil (Alex Roberts) to get to “Apostate, degenerate Joan”, defiantly played by Bryony Davies. She falls prey to – or preys upon? the dubious charms of a bumbler called Christopher (a very funny Laurie Jamieson) while foraging for food as a starving teenager. She doesn’t quite get the chance to “shake his tree of knowledge” before she’s dragged by the Archbishop (Olivia Hirst) into a convent, where she tries to keep herself on the straight and narrow.
It’s the hilariously mild Sister Agnes (Rachel Barnes, whose performance reminded both me and a friend of mine of Babs from Chicken Run, which we don’t think is only because of accents) reading the Song of Solomon one day which brings Joan’s lustful ways back to her, of course. Suddenly she sees visions of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, in harnesses, blowing each other. Suddenly Sister Agnes is looking fine. It’s time to wank jubilantly with a cross.
Lighting designer Alex Fernandes has a field day with Joan of Leeds. To keep up the show’s pretence of being slightly shit, characters often drown in a warm, overenthusiastic wash. As Joan is carnally tormented by a touch, we hear whispers of JOANJOANJOAN and as she writhes in something like agony, and the lights shiver for ages, completely overboard. The marvellously-named designer Lizzy Leech’s set is an amdram charmer, with orange drapes framing cut-outs (childish depictions of stars, clouds, an apple tree) galore. We watch the company spiritedly sing and play their drums, cello and keyboard on scaffolding at each side of the raised stage, and it’s a delight to be able to see Roberts crawl away under the raised stage’s trapdoor after his devilish number.
James Frewer’s music and Owen Crouch’s sound design make for even more animation. Besides choral Latin chants and some seriously seductive sashaying while jingling bells, Barnes easily lands a romantic song from Agnes towards Joan, and Hirst, the most in favour of keeping this production on track, dips into chirpy rhyming. It’s sometimes hard to work out what the actors are saying or singing (very quickly!) over the keen noise, though you could argue that’s in keeping with the Yorkshire Medieval Players characters.
Plenty of the laughs are startled out of you, and the writers Billy Barrett (also directing) and Ellice Stevens aren’t afraid to take a turn into the grim, either. One long, hauntingly realistic sequence showing us the imagined tedium of Joan’s escaped life with Christopher in Beverley combines with Leech’s design to wring out real squirms.
Faced with the question of why Joan’s sisters in the convent helped her manufacture her own corpse to escape, to live without God and with sex, Breach decide on gay love and desire as the answer (as, I firmly believe it always is). Everyone comes round to a message of free love and lively filth with little trouble, which means a very quick about-face for the Yorkshire Medieval Players in telling Joan’s story; we aren’t shown these characters coming to resent the structure of Joan’s story or a growing turn towards rebellion.
That these players often respond seemingly in-character and act with varying seriousness means there’s a fluctuating sense of any difference between these characters vs. the characters they’re playing. Gags around the inexpert efforts of the company could also be more original. But the actors and the production are funny and confident enough that it’s hard not to come out feeling you’ve been given the equivalent of a cheerful, amorous and sweaty hug.
Joan of Leeds is on at New Diorama Theatre till 21st December. More info here.