Joan of Leeds review – randy lesbian nun runs wild

Breach Theatre works backwards. While traditionally a show goes from the stage to the archives, this incessantly smart company has made a name for itself with probing, experimental forms of historical re-enactment. From the politically astute The Beanfield to the compelling It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Breach is a company of creative archivists. Its riotous Christmas show is no exception.

Lovingly, heretically and hilariously, this medieval mystery play about a horny 14th-century nun runs wild, merrily mocking theatrical conventions and rewriting the past. Pleasure is at the heart of this history lesson. Written by Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens, Joan of Leeds sees an amdram company, The Yorkshire Medieval Players, asked to put on a Christmas show. A mystery play traditionally presents biblical scenes; theirs revisits the true story of a randy lesbian runaway nun, played deliriously by Bryony Davies.

Thrown into a convent, Joan, who spends significantly more time thinking about going down on Sister Agnes (Rachel Barnes) than going down to hell, is visited by kinky apparitions encouraging her to act on her unnatural desires. Chaos, mutiny and angelic orgasm ensue.

Get thee to this nunnery … Joan of Leeds. Photograph: The Other Richard

Barrett’s carefully carved direction is exact in its scrappiness and expert in its satire. When Joan escapes to a life of tedious housewifery and disappointing straight sex, the tonal shifts in design are liquid. Lizzy Leech’s set pivots from wobbly panto scenery to classy naturalism in the sweep of a curtain, the multi-layered set moodily lit by Alex Fernandes. Owen Crouch’s sound design and James Frewer’s music bend time and genre, with the blend of live and recorded music shifting from velvet Latin chants to pulsing techno. The cast boasts strong comedic performances, though Alex Roberts is particularly memorable as a snakeskin leather-clad devil.

Borrowing conventions from the dramatic styles it satirises, this is a teasing study in theatrical historiography, as well as a bright celebration of queer voices through time. Joan of Leeds makes for a fine alternative Christmas show; if you’re already fed up of December’s festivities, get thee to this nunnery.

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