Sunday, 16 April 2017

REVIEW: Joan at Ovalhouse

In 1429, Joan of Arc was at the head of the French army that lifted the siege of the English and facilitated the return of the crown of France to its rightful owner Charles VII. Two years later, Joan was tried for claiming to have visions of the Archangel Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret, but escaped the stake, thanks to a last minute retraction. Only a few days later, though, she was again arrested for dressing in soldier's clothes and, considered a relapsed heretic, she was burned at the stake in the marketplace. Twenty-five years later, a posthumous retrial established her innocence and, almost 500 years after her death, she was declared a saint. 

Questioning the boundaries of gender roles and aesthetics, Joan of Arc remains in our social imaginary for her masculine appearance and fierce defiance of feminine duties, having taken her father to court to nullify her arranged marriage. How well her martyrdom fits into our modern society is made clear in Joan, a 75-minute show written and directed by Lucy J Skilbeck, and performed by the fiery Lucy Jane Parkinson. Joan can be hardly classified within a genre and offers a lineup of cheesy pop songs, dramatic monologues and moments of semi-improvised interaction with the audience. Better as a singer and stand-up comedian than as a dramatic actress, Parkinson's charismatic persona holds the piece together, despite its noticeable lack of structure. She is engaging, sparkling and a perfect modern alter-ego to the Maid of Orléans, to whom she gives new flesh and blood.

With some profound thoughts and side-splitting gags, Joan exposes a resounding truth, in which the freedom of image and cross-gender dressing is directly related to the fundamental right of each individual to fully express themselves and their ideals. Renouncing to follow their inclinations and taste results in a detrimental limitation of their personality and conducts to a life that is not worth living for.

For this performance, Emma Bailey has transformed the traverse stage of the Ovalhouse into a more intimate round, where the sitting area is split in four sections and each gap hosts a full-length tilting mirror. Four wooden crates positioned centre stage constitute an adjustable and valid support to every scene, together with a chair, cannily subtracted from an unwilling audience member.

Joshua Pharo and Sarah Readman's lighting is discreet but perceptible, especially during the musical numbers – where it varies greatly between pieces – and when the holiness of Joan D'Arc requires a visual counterpart. The upbeat and exhilarating songs composed by Lucy J Skilbeck are warmly appreciated by the public as one of the brightest highlights of the evening. 

Joan subtly promotes the LGBT cause with creativity and knowledge, but could
benefit from a more refined plot and coherent style. Nonetheless, it deserves four stars, in particular for the use of a pioneering technology, The Difference Engine, which offers captions directly on a smartphone and is advertised for 'd/Deaf and hard of hearing audiences, as well as to those who struggle with spoken English'. Not being a native speaker myself, I know well the difficulties of understanding the fast theatrical speech and this is the first time I have come across a production that actively promotes the removal of this barrier. Well done to Milk Presents and Derby Theatre for addressing this issue in a simple and effective way.

Review by Marianna Meloni

Rating: ★★★★
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