Joanne is the central character in this production and yet she is never seen on stage. She doesn’t speak and the audience don’t see what she looks like. She is a spectre within the play, an image that all the other characters centre upon: “all these thoughts we carry with us, like ghosts in our bones”, as Becky (Tanya Moodie) so poignantly phrases towards the end of the show. Five writers combine a series of monologues from women that have encountered and subsequently been affected by Joanne during a short period in her life. These characters are all joined together by an inexplicable need to do all they can to help her; everyone realises that Joanne is in danger of falling through the cracks in a care system on the verge of breaking apart. Commissioned by Clean Break, a theatre company whose founders have personal experiences in the field, Joanne is a play with subdued rage, a work that is shouting out at the wider community in a desperate attempt to make them recognise the pressures being put upon vital public services.
Moodie is the sole actor in this show, delivering the five monologues with fluid transitions between the distinct personalities. Becky (written by Laura Lomas) and Stella (by Chino Odimba) book-end the show and are performed in a similar style. Both seem fairly reserved and pleasant characters, driven into their chosen careers with a desire to help people. Stella is the support worker that collects Joanne after prison; talking too much to cover her insecurities and awkwardness, she instantly identifies a need to help this fragile girl but is only able to secure her a place in sheltered accommodation for a night. Becky is a former teacher of Joanne’s, reminiscing about her quiet demeanour that every so often is punctuated by flashes of brilliant and insightful thinking.
Kathleen (by Deborah Bruce) is a similarly reserved character, but is ultimately much more anxious than the other two. Overworked and underpaid, she represents “the face of the NHS”, a night shift receptionist in A&E acting as the first point of call for anyone that comes through the doors. Moodie exhibits a marked change in attitude when realising this monologue, injecting a fire into Kathleen that is rekindled as soon as Joanne walks through those doors. One minute she is defeated, the next she sees the bright blue eyes of the resilient yet uneasy girl and remembers her passion for her work: “that’s my favourite part of the job, asking ‘how can I help you?’”.
Alice (by Theresa Ikoko) and Grace (by Ursula Rani Sarma) are the fiery personalities. Both characters allow Moodie to depict her sassy and brash side and she takes full advantage of this. Alice is a gossip: as a cleaner at the sheltered accommodation, she moans and snipes in a manner that belies an inner intelligence. She finds a lost possession of Joanne’s and is struck with the familiar need to help her: “the need is blinding. It [the evidence] assaults and is assaulted”. This emotionally intelligent statement is just one of the thoughts that Alice vocalises, only to flippantly throw it away again.
Grace is not book-smart, but her upbringing confers on her a toughness and credibility that is learnt through harsh experience. She describes her school days, ashamed at being one of the popular girls that bullies the underdog. Now grown up, she has realised her flaws and turned her life around, until one look at Joanne brings her past emotions cycling back to the fore – she represents the child that Grace regrets bullying in her schooldays.
Five different writers, five different stories linked by Róisín McBrinn’s direction that centralises and grounds them. Moodie showcases some incredible characterisation and exerts a power that draws the audience in – unable to blink or draw breath, they sit spellbound by her interpretation of the characters. The writing is heartfelt and resonates a clear message, all in a play that revolves around an absent character.
Joanne is playing at the Soho Theatre until 31 October. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website. Photo: Katherine Leedale.