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Pope Joan

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© Simon Annand
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© Simon Annand
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© Simon Annand
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© Simon Annand
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© Simon Annand
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© Simon Annand

The National Youth Theatre will soon be a grand old lady of 60, but it remains the cradle of Britain’s hottest young theatrical talent. Current artistic director Paul Roseby has a strong track record of combining newly commissioned works with classical productions, and is working hard to rid the company of any lingering reputation for being a summer camp for posh city kids: auditions and performances now take place all round the country.

This debut play by actress Louise Brealey – best known as Molly from the BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ – is one of the most interesting in this year’s NYT West End programme, drawing on the apocryphal accounts of a ninth-century Englishwoman who may or may not have disguised herself as a man to become the first and only female Pope.

The beautiful St James’s Church makes for an atmospheric setting, though the acoustics are daunting. But director Paul Hart has his large cast work hard to occupy the space, scattering the action around the pews, nave and gallery; and stunning live performances of songs by Antony & The Johnsons strike just the right note for a play about gender uncertainty and the redemptive power of the feminine.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Brealey’s script – some of the dialogue is lifeless, and Joan’s psychological motivations remain murky. But there is some very good acting from the young cast, with Sophie Crawford putting in a fearless performance as Joan.

By Laura Barnett

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