Towards the end of last year, my good friend (and fellow critic) Grumpy Gay Critic, urged me to see Milk Presents’ Edinburgh smasher JOAN when it transferred to the Ovalhouse. As he’d already introduced me to the glorious How To Win Against History – another Ovalhouse gem – I had an inkling this may be another triumph.
Wearing both the hats of writer and director, Lucy J Skilbeck retells the story of Joan of Arc in a style that throws convention to the wind. Her slant on the story of France’s heroine is far from a 15thcentury history lesson, focusing rather upon Joan’s struggle with gender identity at a time when dressing in men’s clothes (and having visions of Saints) got you burned at the stake. Skilbeck’s profound piece balances a heady mix of cabaret, drag and comedy, while retaining real heart at its core.
Joan is brought to life by drag king extraordinaire Lucy Jane Parkinson (aka LoUis CYfer). Hers is a down-to-earth northern lass, dressed in high-top trainers, streetwear and dreads. We initially see Joan as her true self, comfortable in her own skin as she welcomes the audience into an intimate pub-vibe arena. She’s waiting for her pal Saint Catherine. “Don’t worry, she’ll come” she nods to the audience, as she leaves her a voicemail while shuffling an audience member out of Saint Catherine’s reserved seat.
As she begins to tell her familiar story as the teenage warrior, Joan’s life is trimmed down to focus on the male influences in her life – from the father she left behind, Charles VII and her interrogator Pierre Cauchon. Parkinson transforms effortlessly into each character with the swoosh of a moustache, putting on a flat cap and not to mention a metallic-jacketed Dauphin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Honey G.
From the outset, Parkinson owns the stage and despite the absence of the golden breastplate, she’s a dazzling force in the centre of the room. The audience are wooed by her sparkling wit and cheeky humour, yet she retains the power to deeply move through tender moments of poetic monologue.
Skilbeck allows Parkinson an element of creative freedom to improvise her way through the cabaret-style routines (audience participation aplenty) which ensures they’re fizzing full of energy. It’s a true testament to Parkinson’s brilliance that keeps the humour organic and the pace punchy.
The show bursts with moments that are as likely to make you cringe, as laugh-out-loud, as be brought to tears. One minute you’re mopping up the booze you’ve spat out in laughter and the next, wiping the mascara tears rolling down your cheek.
By the end of Joan’s tragically short life, the poignant final number reveals the world to be a lonely place for those who don’t fit the gender binary – we may be centuries apart, but her struggle feels current and deeply affecting. Ultimately, it is only being true to one’s self that is the real victory.
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