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JOAN (National Tour): Review

Joan Giddy-up! LoUis CYfer as Joan in 'JOAN'. Photograph: Courtesy of Field & McGlynn.

Stirringly poetic, beautifully neurotic, and literally divine, JOAN is a revelation of theatrical creativity and blissfully barmy cabaret.


Joan is waiting for a friend to turn up: St. Catherine (yes, the same one as the spinning firework). Whilst we await the saint’s arrival, she tells us about the things she did for St Catherine, like defeating the English and uniting France!

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Quiet riot. LoUis CYfer as Joan in ‘JOAN’. Photograph: Courtesy of Milk Presents.

Writing

Joan of Arc is a fascinating historical personality: a peasant girl, who claimed to have divine visions, managed to convince an exiled king to give her an army to defeat the English, which she did. However, she came to a brutal end because people were upset that she went around dressed as a man. In the promotional material, Joan of Arc is described as “the first drag king”, and in some ways, she probably was, or maybe even trans! But what writer Lucy J Skilbeck has set out to do is not to try and push a particular idea of who she was and what her gender identity might have been, but explore ideas of gender in medieval France through a thoroughly modern lilt and cheeky humour, and get to know the legendary historical figure on a more personal and human level.

What’s absolutely marvelous about JOAN is just how sublimely neurotic it is. I know that sounds like a criticism, but here, it absolutely isn’t. We go from highly rich and poetic solo performance to full-on crazy drag cabaret. These theatrical split-personalities explore Joan of Arc’s history, personality, and gender in very different but equally as edifying and intelligent ways. Switching between these two seemingly polemic theatrical styles adds a whiplash sense of variety and dynamic interest. It’s difficult to turn off as you’re rushed from laughing out loud at the audacity of Skilbeck’s burlesques to crying at the sheer beauty of Skilbeck’s deeper explorations of character.

Everything, however, is told through a very modern lens, especially in the language and the approach of the story, helping you really connect with Joan of Arc as a person. Then, there are the cracking send-ups of the men in her life through brilliant and very clever wit in JOAN’s songs that are just as notable, memorable, and striking. But it’s Skilbeck’s talent for a deep, stirring, and heartbreaking empathy that hooks you to the point that JOAN is both emotionally elating and destructive. From describing witnessing the rape and murder of her mother from afar, to leaving her father without telling him, to the bitter regret of her betrayal of St Catherine, she’s painted as an astonishingly human and real person. You feel like you’ve actually met the fabled martyr and spent an hour in their company, being constantly being chaperoned from roars of laughter to streams of tears.

JOAN is an absolutely blistering text: out rightly original and inspired, and with a talent that completely takes the chair out from beneath you when you least expect it. Easily one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, if not, ever!

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It’s good to be king. LoUis CYfer as Joan in JOAN. Photograph: Courtesy of Milk Presents.

Direction & Production

What’s great about the production of JOAN is that it’s so unassuming, but is meticulous and ingenious none the less. A cross traverse blockaded with dressing mirrors at each point and four crates in the centre, Emma Baily’s design looks like a typical bare bones fringe production that is born from limited funds but unlimited enthusiasm. But you couldn’t be more wrong, as when JOAN gets going the entire production unveils itself as sheer brilliance that is hidden in its simplicity.

The mirrors set a nice abstract theme of reflections and identity, especially as behind each one is the costume for one of the three men that JOAN caricatures in the show, constantly questioning who she is and what are the influences on who she is as a person and who controls her. But these mirrors are also spectacularly used by lighting designers Sarah Readman, Joshua Pharo, and Eva Alonso, who create a clever glowing cross on the floor by reflecting lighting directly off the mirrors, creating dazzling atmosphere using rich colours and warm washes, and some unbelievable moments such as back-lighting that creates literal shafts of light coming off her, making her look like true divinity. Then, the work with disco balls and lights create a frantic and fun sense of mania during the cabaret sections. David Lewington’s sound design also eases in Skilbeck’s original music and other ambient sounds that builds a subtle yet incredibly emotive aural drama that moves you as much as Skilbeck’s text and LoUis CYfer’s performance.

Skilbeck’s direction really gives space for the text and performer to really explore Joan as a character, a really tender and touching pace that enables you to get to know her more than any textbook or Hollywood portrayal. But Skilbeck also wonderfully embraces the mania of the cabaret sections, pumping in wonderful off-kilter sass into every interlude. But what’s very clear is just how well Skilbeck works with CYfer as a performer. An acclaimed drag performer themselves, Skilbeck allows CYfer to flourish in their element and wholly accommodate their performance verve. But Skilbeck also allows them to very personally explore their character in the more straight-forward theatrical scenes. It’s an excellently organic and empathetic direction, which is exactly what this show requires and deserves.

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Judge and jury. LoUis CYfer as Joan in ‘JOAN’. Photograph: Courtesy of Milk Presents.

Performance

CYfer is just fantastic: it’s no wonder they won Drag Idol UK. CYfer knows how to work and interact with the crowd and build a rapport with them: essential for any piece of solo theatre. As for the cabaret portions, CYfer is completely in their element and is nothing short of a rapturous explosion of fabulousness. Add to that some blistering hilarious moments of audience participation too, and on JOAN ‘s cabaret credentials alone, CYfer is an absolute winner and you couldn’t ask for a better performer. But most surprisingly is how well CYfer handles themselves as a more traditional theatre performer. CYfer makes Skilbeck’s deeply lyrical lines absolutely sing and shimmer with a deep and sincere poetry. Everything about JOAN as a concept and as a character is embodied in CYfer, and the overall performance is utterly awe-inspiring. CYfer is an expert performer, and one that people should be clambering over each other to see.

Verdict

Wage war to get a ticket. JOAN is a super-collision of writing, production, and performance that leaves you stunned and changed. For those of you who might avoid JOAN because of its LGBTQ credentials, don’t, as you’ll only end up martyring yourselves over a show that is beyond any political pigeon-holing. You’ll never look at Joan of Arc the same again, or possible see something as exquisite either. JOAN is blissfully cutting: the war wound you’ll tell your grandchildren about.

JOAN was reviewed during its preview run at the Battersea Arts Centre, London, SW11 5TN, 14 – 16 June 2016.
JOAN is currently touring. For dates and prices, please visit www.milkpresents.com.