There are some chaotic energies that are risky to release. The energy of am-dram theatre, for example, or that of abject horniness. More chaotic still: explaining to an audience that a medieval mystery play is not a crime thriller but a religious tableau traditionally performed by guilds of craftsmen. Put them together and it might seem like a recipe for disaster. But in Breach Theatre’s hysterically funny ‘Joan of Leeds’, a send-up of both am-dram and Christmas plays, the chaos coheres into a sparkling, sweetly realised triumph.
Bryony Davies plays Joan, a young woman in fourteenth-century Yorkshire, tempted by a sexy demonic vision (Alex Roberts in a snakeskin bodysuit) to seduce a boy. This transgression gets her sent to a convent. There, trying to devote her life to Jesus, she is harried by visions of the saints in leather harnesses with carnal intentions, and hungrily obsesses over fellow nun Agnes (Rachel Barnes). Eventually the X-rated visions are all too much and she fakes her own death to run away for a life of what she hopes will be erotic bliss.
Director Billy Barrett sets the (astonishingly true) tale of Joan within the story of the am-dram company of the Yorkshire Medieval Players, a flustered bunch of excitable thesps rather overwhelmed by the opportunity to play to such a big audience. Barrett superbly evokes the panicked earnestness of amateur productions – right down to the cardboard scenery – and much of the wild humour comes from his delicious send-up of their high-camp farce.
But the slapstick nature of the play hides a surprising narrative tension. Sure, it’s funny to watch Joan go knock-kneed over a double entendre, but her struggle is essentially a queer, feminist one. When Joan flees the convent and begins her life anew, she steps behind the curtain to discover a startling realistic set design; for all that this is a satirical play, it carries real-life significance. The tone shifts as Barrett takes us from wanking jokes and ‘Carry On’ humour to empathy, passion and rebellion – and magically still keeps it fun, high-energy and ridiculous.