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 present a fantastic show. The set is nothing more than four boxes and four full-length mirrors in the centre of a living room sized space, and the performance is thoroughly enthralling.
The incredibly charismatic Parkinson plays the eponymous role in this Drag King Cabaret-come-historical re-telling- come- drama. Her incredible ease with the audience and her incredibly quick wit are the first things to impress. From the very beginning, Joan is taking and making calls on the phones of strangers, re-seating the audience and confiscating sweets from children. This graduates to using the audience as a choir of sound effects and as personal assistants…
I have rarely seen such skill with audience participation, in such close proximity, for such an extended period. Parkinson cleverly takes simple details from the audience and inserts them into the evening’s performance with jaw-dropping speed and in a way which feels unique and utterly fresh, and of course it is. The audience members are 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.
Lucy Skilbeck’s writing is incredibly clever and lyrical and while there’s plenty of comedy in the piece, it’s also very reflective and includes more somber elements – 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.
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 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.
Joan combines cabaret, comedy and history to explore a very modern and topical issue facing so many in the here and now, making this 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. The dramatic ending seems 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. Recommended.