To begin, it's worth stating that Breach Theatre is one of the most exciting and enterprising companies out there – shows like Tank or It's True, It's True, It's True all hum with charged novelty and it is certainly worth catching the latter when it comes to the Barbican next year. So it's a shame that this new piece – Joan of Leeds, currently playing at the New Diorama – feels like an odd misfire.
The concept is succulent: based (much like Tank and It's True) on a real story, the show follows a young 14th-century Yorkshire-based woman, the titular Joan. Bored and plagued by raunchy visions, Joan flees from her life as a nun and goes gallivanting off in search of a life of carnal jollity – only to find out that the world doesn't match up with the ideas of sensual excess she'd imagined.
Maybe it's this reviewer's Christmas blues but much of the humour never really seems to land – the 75-minute show straddles an awkward line between being glib (the cast of five present the show as if it's performed by a northern amateur dramatic group) and earnest, while some unmemorable tunes drag rather than delight.
The irreverently meta framing device of having the show being performed by tacky aspiring actors softens the underlying ideas of the production and means that, by being so incessantly tongue-in-cheek (even during some heated moments), the piece ends up undermining its own very valid points about history erasing the reality faced by those shackled by circumstances. This feels especially true during an uproarious concluding sequence that sees Joan re-writing her own narrative.
The cast acquit themselves well and have bucket-loads of costume-changing gusto as they bring Joan's story to life, while designer Lizzy Leech may have constructed one of the best sets seen on the New Diorama's stage. There is one brilliantly marvelous coup gestating at the heart of the production that it would be wrong to spoil but in all, this alternative festive offering doesn't feel all that divine.