by Laura Ferguson
After I’m settled in and the play starts, I am pleasantly surprised to find a well-rounded Joan enter the stage. Ginette McDonald and her daughter, Kate McGill, play the titular Joan as well as a bevy of other characters as the story of this woman’s life unfurls. McDonald’s more senior Joan is a swearing, uncouth woman, having thrown off the punctilious Catholic doctrines of propriety regarding sexuality. Instead, she’s raucous and bawdy, recalling how she once screamed ‘CUNT!’ at a politician whose only acquiescence to abortion was ‘once the babe was born and in the mother’s arms’. These strongly worded opinions with many a Mrs Brown’s Boys’ ‘feckin’ thrown in for effect, allows the humour to shine through. Joan’s conviction in these beliefs make me warm to her with a feeling of solidarity against injustice. McGill’s younger Joan has that wilful, headstrong nature reminiscent of Joan’s beloved Shakespearean heroines. Like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Joan flaunts her independence leaving her alcoholic husband after returning from a trip to Ireland. These instances of empowerment highlight her inner strength and resolve to get on with challenges rather than shrink in the face of them making me think I would have liked her and that she would be an excellent friend. I delightedly gravitate towards anyone who publicly protests against social inequities such as Joan does; we would have got into mischief, I think.
As delightful as McGill and McDonald are, the playwright, Scott, has not shied away from showing the less pleasant aspects of his mother’s character either. As with many a family member from previous generations, there are moments of racism that make me squirm. Joan’s lamentable admonishment of her daughter’s declaration that she will marry a black man, “Oh, Susu, don’t. Think of my heart!” and Joan’s disparaging comment that she doesn’t like Muslims despite liking all the ones she’s actually met, are cringe-inducing and yet so despairingly familiar. The contradiction of Joan’s love for Sammy Davis Jr. and her participation in the protests for the Springbok tour in the 1980’s show us the depths of a brilliant, yet flawed woman. I can imagine Scott sighing with exasperation when he encountered these moments with Joan, too. It creates a feeling of camaraderie with the author that was unexpected but also rather fun. Like a shared eyeroll between friends.
As we progress through the play, and the struggles with Joan’s alcoholic husband begin to escalate, Big Tom calls Joan a slut even though she has only been with him, illuminating the plethoric emotional abuse that part of #MeToo has unearthed. With a lack of support from a loving husband, the heartaches of living far away from family present themselves, as we find out Joan’s father has died. The aching for Ireland and those who love her unconditionally has now reminds Joan of something she can never regain. The love and support of her father is now lost and McDonald retells Joan curling up in a ball ‘like a hedgehog’, her kids stepping over her as she lies castrated with grief on the floor. I am engrossed in the trials we humans go through in life and how sometimes we wish it were more a dream, or a montage to skim past to relieve the hurt. While not articulated, it is easy to see the spectrum of emotion in this moment, the shock and hurt of death, the guilt at not being there, the subconscious anger to her husband and children for ignoring her pain.
These thoughts are aided by Charley Draper’s projection design. Three projectors cast impressively synchronised images on the white curtains that fall from the top of the set to the floor, encapsulating the feeling of a funeral parlour. The effect is subtle but engaging, helping to embed the story with real footage of the Springbok tour protests and images of Frank Sinatra. The slideshow adds to the funeral atmosphere. Scott’s work transforms the theatre into a loving wake for his mother. A two-hour eulogy for the woman who raised him. The stories shared from Joan’s first-person narrative would be one’s told as anecdotes at a funeral. Laughter mixed in with the tears, the touching nostalgia of ‘Remember when…’ prominent in the minds of the grieving.
As this character study begins to wind down into the inevitability that awaits us all: Joan dies. Her moment coming with a heavy dose of morphine, with her daughter and son-in-law each holding a hand. We hear the last lucid gurgle and a plain sentence that ended this woman’s life and with it, the show. Joan laughs croakily, “Haha, you were both snoring,”. The line isn’t significant and the lack of poignancy does more than if Joan had gone out with the banger quips she has entertained us with. This moment feels intimate and my imagination is manifesting hospital beeps and the astringent smell of disinfectant. It’s sanitary and bland in a way this woman clearly was not. It is the end, in more ways than one. We clap loudly and congratulate the two women who so wonderfully portrayed Joan with much of the audience brought to their feet in appreciation for Scott’s deeply personal yet thoroughly engaging story.
Reflecting on the show as we exit, I realise that while this Joan did not exactly have an arc, that made the character more real to me. Everyday people don’t have the fantastical story that sainted Joan had, but this Joan shows that our stories matter just as much if only to us, that they are just as worthy of being told. Joan is a healthy reminder to enjoy ourselves while we can, a lesson I will now wholeheartedly implement with a glass of wine. Sláinte, Joan.
Joan’s premiere season is playing at Circa Theatre from the 20th of January until the 17th of February. You can find tickets here.