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Pope Joan, St. James’Church – Review

by Louise Brealey
Directed by Paul Hart

Pros: Everything about this piece is good – the writing, the acting, the setting, the lighting – it all works. Sophia Crawford’s performance is a highlight.

Cons: Although atmospheric, church acoustics make voices echo so some dialogue is hard to catch.
Our Verdict: This is wonderful theatre. It builds slowly, but provides a thoughtful look into an often-debated subject in history that still has relevance and shock value in today’s society.
Courtesy of National Youth Theatre
Given the subject matter of this play, it’s setting is perfect. The atmospheric St. James’ Church in Piccadilly is historic, ornate, gilded and magnificent. What it lacks in easy viewing (it is a church, after all, not an amphitheatre) it wholeheartedly atones for in its provision of the perfect backdrop to the inner workings of a church fit for a Pope. The inclusion of constantly wandering, occasionally chanting, monks and heady, rich, smoky incense allows the audience to forget they are not in a religious service, but instead in the presence of some very talented young actors from the National Youth Theatre. Excellently written dialogue further reminds us we are not in mass, but rather a performance, which serves to preserve and provide sympathy for the monumentally heart-breaking story of the first female Pope.
The story is a debut play written by Louise Brealey, who is best known for her endearing portrayal of Molly Hooper on the BBC’s Sherlock series. The play tells the assumed tale of a woman who is reported to have been the first female pope, whilst dressed in drag. Brealey’s story, told in a well-orchestrated mix of flash backs to a younger Joan, played by Sarah Miele, wide-eyed and hungry for knowledge, showing us why she chose the path she did, and then fast-forwards to the devastating events which lead to the unravelling of Joan’s secrets. In the programme, Brealey prompts the audience as to the arguments for and against Pope Joan’s existence, and then weaves a tale so beautiful that it’s impossible not to believe in her.
The cast is excellent, and at times it’s hard to remember how young they all are as their talent and professionalism is commendable. Robert Willoughby does well as the villainous Anastasius, and Sarah Miele’s youthful innocence is perfect for young Joan. Sophie Crawford plays the lead of Pope Joan and she is a powerhouse. Authoritative and commanding, she simultaneously demonstrates an internal vulnerability that suits the nature of a secret female in power surrounded by men. Her tough and cruel exterior mixed with her emotional internal dilemma is incredibly well handled. This is a name and a face to watch for the future.
The lighting adds well to the performance. It was quite surprising to see just how varied the lighting in a church could be and how a simple change takes us from bed chamber to mass. Without wanting to give too much away, there is a great scene with rather harrowing subject matter done brilliantly with low, white light and sound effects that create a wonderful illusion of a dark, stormy night.
This is a very good production and it leaves you with a lot of anguish to ponder over; the last scene will stay with you long after the church doors close behind you. Although the cast are young, I would suggest this for serious and slightly more mature audiences, as the subject matter is rather heavy and there is a bit of nudity. I am not too well versed in religion, and although it is a play dripping in references to the bible, at no time did I feel at a loss over the plot for my lack of a religious background.
There are a few modern mixes which can confuse the audience; builders in modern dress, pop songs (the inclusion of Antony and the Johnson’s Hope There’s Someone is beautiful) but these modern influences do well to remind the audience that this scenario is actually still frustratingly relevant and accessible for modern day audiences, particularly as we have yet to see an undisputed female Pope. Louise Brealey asks us to believe in Joan’s existence, and after a moving and stunning performance from the gripping Sophie Crawford, I for one do.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!
Pope Joan runs at St James’ Church, Piccadilly, until 15th September 2013.
Box Office: 0207 452 3010 or book online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/national-youth-theatre-pope-joan

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