Christmas is the time for nativities and pantos. Most people’s engagement with theatre at this time of year involve’s attending a child’s school reenactment of the birth of Christ, or shouting ‘oh no it isn’ts’ and ‘oh yes it is’s’ at brightly clad soap stars. These are indeed the traditions of British yuletide theatre-going, but sometimes we need a break from tradition.
Breach Theatre’s new comedy musical Joan of Leeds offers exactly this, with much pomp, laughter and ferocious merriment.
Following the partially documented story of the 14th Century nun, known historically as Joan of Leeds, as she fakes her death in order to abandon her religion and pursue a life of carnal pleasure – or so the official story goes. What follows is a hilarious and raunchy romp as Joan (played by Bryony Davies) discovers herself and her sexuality through brilliant musical numbers and absurdly funny scenes.
Framed as the creation of the Yorkshire Medieval Players – a 1970s drama group with a passion for reviving the tradition of the medieval mystery play – Joan of Leeds has the self-aware comedy value of Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques or Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong. Yet, Joan of Leeds does much more than split one’s sides with the classic gaffs and pomposity of low budget or amateur theatre; it examines the prejudices and biases with which we view history.
Breach Theatre’s documentary-style theatre has highlighted a number of widely forgotten yet utterly captivating moments in history and examined them with a political eye – and Joan of Leeds is no different. Though the vampy musical numbers fill the show with an essence of mirth, there is an anger and frustration embodied in the figure of Joan. As Joan escapes her restrictive life as a Benedictine nun to become the wife of a local physician, she realises that the root of all her misery is in fact the expectations of a patriarchal and therefore inherently heteronormative society that are placed upon her. The religious dogma that trapped her in the convent was merely another product of a world that was built to restrict her as a queer woman.
By setting the show within the framework of a 1970’s play, Joan of Leeds highlights the misery of living hidden and closeted, existing as a false version of one’s self just to survive the day to day. But what is the point of merely surviving if you deny yourself the potential to thrive? The 1970s was a time of sexual revolution but that revolution could only be sparked – as all revolutions must be sparked – by a crushingly opposing norm. The 70s was a time when comedy was often founded upon outrageous racism, sexism and other generally loathsome bigotry, and yet it was also the time when some of the greatest feminist and queer literary theory was written. There were revolutions in art, music and theatre and you feel this fraught, fractious energy within the play throughout.
This tension and self criticism, along with the brilliant original musical numbers, composed by James Brewer and co-written by Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett, is what makes Joan of Leeds not only thrilling to watch but also thought-provoking. Even in 2019, so many of these prejudices around queer history still exist and while it may not be possible to determine whether the real Joan was a queer woman, it is not possible to discredit the possibility either. To acknowledge queer visibility within history is a powerful political statement and one that needs to be made.
In these politically charged times, with a Christmas general election looming, Joan of Leeds provides a rip-roaring piece of theatre that keeps you thinking with every laugh and giggle – the kind of laughter that is fuelled by a lust for change.