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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Music Director/Percussion Joley Cragg, Percussion Kiyami Seed, Trombone Hannah Dikes, Tuba Hanna Mbuya

Directed by Llinca Radulian, Assistant Director Diana Pidcock, Designer Naomi Kuyk-Cohen,  Design Associate Hazel Low.

Composer Laura Moody. Choreographer Jennifer Jackson, Dramaturg Sarah Dickenson

Battle Movement Consultant Rachel Bown-Williams of Rc-Annie. Globe Associate Movement Glynn MacDonald, Costume Supervisor Laura Rushton, Deputy Head of Wigs, Hair & Make -Up Lottie Bull, Head of Props Emma Hughes, Head of Stage Bryan Patterson

Voice Katherine Heath. Stage Manager Felix Dunning, Company Manager Marion Marrs, Casting Director Becky Paris.

Till October 22nd


They’ve always been there, most of us knew it. But it’s taken Charlie Josephine’s I, Joan to reimagine Joan’s opening address: ‘Truth is, queerness is magic, pure magic! We are beautiful, and powerful, and for that we are killed.’ Present tense of course.

There’s more of that in this two-hours-50 traversal of a voice we always suspected, with a blazingly committed team helmed by director Llinca Radulian, where creatives write the most heart-stopping paeans in a programme that’s an essential adjunct.

Helps too the title role goes to Isobel Thom, making their professional debut: the greatest I’ve ever seen.

Thom grabs Josephine’s creation with their own throat, Puck in a breastplate spinning like some centripetal force through the groundlings on occasion and mostly onstage to a stage-wide wooden slide designer Naomi Kuyk-Cohen nails up. So choreographer Jennifer Jackson and movement director Glynn MacDonald throw bright-coloured actors around a curvy rampart that bends danger with precision. It’s vertiginous, exhilarating: a production often on the edge.

The sheer energy of it – and it needs that – is amplified in Laura Moody’s score led by Joley Cragg, inflected – as Moody mentions – with SOPHIE and Anna Meredith (think Clapping Music and deep percussion). Though period folk-tunes on flute vary the texture, it’s heavy on trombone and tuba, memorably ominous, and finally in a rousing last song ‘Joan of Arc/burned at the stake for knowing their heart’ just memorable.

We open with Jolyon Coy’s striding Charles the Dauphin ‘bored’ which despite his terrific energy is a scene a bit long before the real power emerges: storytelling Shaw managed far more wittily, that Josephine relays here like a duty. It’s the transgressive points, men’s apparel, which truly did scandalise the court, where Josephine fuses dress and that identity word only Joan’s bestie peasant-born Thomas resolves as ‘they’. True, sick-hearted Adam Gillen – one of nine Henry VIII players common to both Globe productions this season – is in his element here, making like Coy one of the strongest showings.

We move through a gloriously energised suite of battles, perhaps too many, but Rachel Bown-Williams has crafted a ballet of bloodshed where 13 of the 14 cast dance, die and resurrect with haunting fluidity. When Jonah Russell’s rough-hewn general Dunois gets underway, always calling Joan ‘Kid’, the production ups a gear with their initially testy then warm interchange fuelling battles before warfare.

There’s fine work too from Janet Etuk’s imposing Queen Marie, Debbie Korley’s wily Dowager mother Yolande, repository of many wrongs to women: a court-intrigue double-act cutting across even Charles. Josephine shows their stratagems as realpolitik: offstage securing a peace neither Charles or especially Joan dreams of. Baker Mukasa in his smaller roles voices a distinction and presence you’d rather hear more of, and Esmonde Cole disposes a towering authority.

The troupe of Joan’s Army – Roseanna Anderson, Natasha Cottrail, Joe Henry, Azara Meghie – form a tight-knit chorus of ballet, identity, and wonder around Thom, where Josephine allows Joan’s difference to register both celebration and self-questioning – ritualised by Jackson and Bown-Williams.

A trio of curmudgeons with Mukasa, Cole and Kevin McMonagle – whose roles culminate in Bishop Beaupere’s iron-voiced damnations – counterpoint in a dissonant huddle. Dancer Anna Savva comes to the fore in the final tableau where most shift identities to inquisitors, in her serpent-voiced chief inquisitor Cauchon. One of the very finest Globe casts this season, there’s not a weak link.

To hear Thom with no vocal tiredness after three hours orate so unstoppably is something: ‘Your binary. Your boxes. Your pathetic attempts to create certainty in the chase of illusionary safety. Nothing’s certain! Babes, it’s allllllll fluid! Sweet n sticky, spillin’ out your boxes, drippin’ all down the sides of your binary.’ The revolution called for is to sweep the English into the sea. Which English, which century? We’re with Joan by this time, a wooden O of revolution.

So I missed the fatuous twitter-storm that accompanied publicity. Josephine’s traversal yes, not travesty, and naturally it’s not simply about 15th century Joan but those very stormers spelling precarity for Joan’s spiritual descendants, which includes most of us, binary or not. Funny how no-one’s offended by Shakespeare’s sexually voracious sado-path, but then he’s safely dead culture, not a living one to be killed. If only they knew. And one suspects Shakespeare, indeed Shaw – creating Joans for their politics –  would enjoy Josephine and Thom.

This role was made for Thom too. Few one feels could carry it with such blazing power – as well as singular conviction – over nearly three hours when they’re barely offstage. The effect’s almost stupefying. There are longeurs we take in because it’s Thom and because Josephine writes some unforgettable prose-poetry. ‘Our tongues on fire lappin’ up sparks! Her smiles wide got me high like bright skies! Off our nuts on assonance! A verb, raving, in the middle of a noun!’ It recalls Joelle Taylor’s award-winning C+nto, a passage of which is quoted in the programme.

Josephine hints at a moment of hubris sowing seeds, a neat plot-point they don’t exploit. The overly famous givens in Joan’s life means even Josephine can’t omit essentials like the Dauphin pretending to be someone else, or Joan’s recantation – more neatly handled. But Josephine could compress these more. We need three minutes of fourth-wall too, not ten, because Josephine dilates a message we need to hear three times, but it can dilute. Heretical – because the sheer words are often exhilarating; but we could have done with more trimming, 20 minutes at least, and a greater thew of plot.

This is to judge at the highest level Josephine’s play demands. Cast and creatives deserve the highest praise for believing in and lifting a behemoth of lyrical ecstasy with occasionally diffuse, plotless minutes. Ten minutes already shorn from the running-time, there may be more by the end of the run. Don’t wait, though. It’s the last blaze of summer before a long hot winter, and we need Josephine’s fire and Joan’s voices for the furies ahead. Groundbreaking.