Joanne is a sort of theatrical illusion trick, occupying a borderland that’s both personal and universal, specific and invisible. Its heroine – Joanne – is never on stage; its focus shifts every dozen or so minutes, distracting us with a new protagonist or detail just as we’ve grown accustomed to the last; Joanne is both its subject and its route map to somewhere else.
Never seeing her, we know little about Joanne physically – she’s tall, wears a red watch, might have long dark hair. A Jo(anne) Bloggs, her narrative is constructed through a series of revelations from five differently authored monologues, each presenting the perspective of someone she’s come into contact with during her life. Her story has similarities with those of many women in prisons and secure units across the UK, and with many who engage with producers Clean Break through their support services and theatre / education programmes. Joanne functions as an insight into those lives, too often nameless or unseen, and its five fragments highlight moments when public and support services play fundamental roles – at hospitals, schools, probation offices – and moreover the multiple times when a small change might have steered a life onto a radically different course.
But the play’s unfolding is less a colouring of Joanne’s portrait and more an illumination of those around her. It brings to the foreground the true face of the NHS, shows us what the teacher really sees behind the electricity shed; its five protagonists are “the front line of a very brittle army” of public service workers whose lives are, in a different way, just as on edge as Joanne’s. Chino Odimba’s Stella and Theresa Ikoko’s Alice, a recently privatised probation officer and “lower-middle-senior management” hospital operations manager, are both starting to crack because of pressures within the systems they work in; while Ursula Rani Sarma’s Grace and Laura Lomas’ Becky, a police officer and school teacher, both feel their professional judgement tested or obstructed by the nature of their roles; and Deborah Bruce’s Kathleen, an A&E receptionist getting over a nervous breakdown, reminds us that those delivering public services are as much their users as the rest of us.
Joanne fleets in and out of view across the five pieces – a glimpse of her red watch here, an anecdote there – and while the structure of five short monologues limits the scope for a detailed narrative, spending only a few minutes with each character, the coherency established across five individually-developed pieces is testament to the skillful dramaturgy and staging of Roisin McBrinn’s production.
Tanya Moodie wraps herself around the distinct styles of the five monologues in a wondrously dexterous performance, bringing an individuality to each – a tick, an accent, a voice – while maintaining a consistency in staging that allows the five shorts to function as a whole. Her performance complements Clean Break’s ambitious feat of commissioning – developed and first performed in the run-up to May’s election, and against an austerity rhetoric then and now, Joanne is a quiet hymnal to the public services, and a warning that without greater thought and understanding these front-line soldiers might disappear forever.