Thursday 2nd June, 2016, at Rough Trade, Nottingham.
In a cramped and quirky venue in the heart of Nottingham, Lucy Parkinson (aka LoUis CYfer) and Lucy Skilbeck presented a fantastic show. The ‘set’ was nothing more than four boxes and four full-length mirrors in the centre of a living room sized space, and the performance was thoroughly entertaining.
Charismatic is the word for the first Lucy (Parkinson), playing the eponymous role in this Drag King Cabaret-come-historical re-telling- come- drama, ‘Joan’. Her incredible ease with the audience and her incredibly quick wit were the first things to impress; from the very beginning, Joan was taking and making calls on the phones of strangers, re-seating the audience and confiscating sweets from children. This graduated to using the audience as a choir of sound effects and as personal assistants; all achieved through a charming characterisation which was simply irresistible for anyone roped into a particular moment. I have never seen such skill with audience participation, in such close proximity, for such an extended period. Lucy cleverly took simple details from the audience and inserted them into the evening’s performance with jaw-dropping speed, in a way that felt unique and utterly fresh, and of course it was- the audience members were not plants; George, his love of chocolate biscuits and leading with his left foot found the mundane details of his life hilariously woven into the fabric of the pre-existing script for one very funny evening.
Accostingly clever is the phrase for the second Lucy (Skilbeck), the writer of the one-woman triumph, ‘Joan’. ‘A voice that feels like sunrise’ is one indicative and memorable line which is representative of the poetic, intellectual and at times abstract writing which made the more serious moments quite touching. The death of Joan’s mother and the rude awakening of life as a man leading an entire army are just two examples of the the more emotive aspects of this production. That said, there was an awful lot of comedy beyond the fearless audience interaction, causing involuntary guffaws with the Cabaret inserts of tunes such as ‘SheBoy’, accompanied by sequins and crotch thrusting which rivalled the master, Michael Jackson. Lucy is the first Drag King that I have seen in action and I was thoroughly impressed- it seems entirely fitting that she won the Drag King 2014 competition for her talents.
At the centre of this piece is the issue of identity, particularly challenging gender norms and the long struggle for acceptance for those straying from the ‘norm’ in any way. Right from the beginning, Joan’s dad is critical of her gender-defying wardrobe which would apparently bring shame on her family and make her a laughing stock, and thus the battle commences. Joan dons the identity of various males throughout the performance with swift and magical transformations consisting of just facial hair, jackets and hats; the transformations are no less impressive for this simplicity of design.
The appearance of an enforced femininity in the latter part is the basis of both comedy and poignancy. The awkward, forced and coy smile, the token flower and the hilariously awkward interactions with the audience as her ‘female self’ are a crystal clear demonstration of how unnatural assigned gender can feel. Lucy beautifully captures the struggle of battling to keep an authentic, true identity under constriction while adopting the alien conventions of an assigned gender identity under duress; the historically accurate threat of death is an apt metaphor for the whole issue of feeling that in order to be socially accepted, conformity to a certain version of yourself requires a death, to an extent, of the ‘true’ self. This is just one example of how Lucy Skilbeck’s writing and Lucy Parkinson’s fearless performance were a brilliant combination for a thought-provoking and somewhat damning social commentary.
‘Joan’ had a varied and thoroughly entertaining style, combining cabaret, comedy and history to explore a very modern and topical issue facing so many in the here and now. ‘Joan’ is an important piece of contemporary theatre which rightfully and commendably challenges society to be much more discerning and intelligent when it comes to identity and gender identity in particular; with the dramatic ending seeming to say that the answer is not conformity, but strength on the part of those struggling and greater understanding on the part of those needing to support rather than condemn.