Soho Upstairs, London (****)

© Katherine Leedale

© Katherine Leedale

Clean Break, 36 years young and going strong. The company formed by two women ex-prisoners in 1979 keeps going from strength to strength though this production is only the tip of the iceberg. Like so many theatre companies these days, a vital educational programme runs alongside its public work.

Joanne, under new artistic director, Róisín McBrinn seems to be taking their work to a new level. If Vivienne Franzmann’s Pests last year was the most harrowing of experiences with its portrait of addiction, Joanne, written by five different writers – Deborah Bruce, Theresa Ikoko, Laura Lomas, Chino Odimba, Ursula Rani Sarma – is a cool yet devastating monologuic tour de force that also carries a cohesive power rare when more than one writer is involved.

Many projects founder under such laudable attempt to incorporate many writing voices. But not here. Joanne gives us a multi-perspective view on a young woman who doesn’t make it when she comes out of prison and the women working in public services she encounters.

We never actually meet Joanne. Instead, she is seen through the eyes of frontline staff – the probation worker being made redundant, the police-woman whose brush with Joanne summons up a ghostly memory of her part in school bullying that led to their victim’s suicide; the Nigerian hostel worker where Joanne is sent and runs amok after a treasured plastic watch is stolen; the NHS A&E receptionist, working nights for the past 30 years, drowning in the humanity she has had to deal with; and the teacher who discovers a horrible truth about Joanne but is unable to save her.

All these women have their own stories to tell interwoven with their meetings with Joanne indicating moments when her descent might have been stopped.

It’s a tragic tale for our times, a catalogue of in some cases careless blunders (the doctor who gives Joanne the wrong meds when she comes out) but also often good intentions, directed with elegance by McBrinn and performed with humour and powerful charisma by Moodie who plays all the female characters – Stella, Grace, Kathleen, Alice and Becky.

© Katherine Leedale

© Katherine Leedale

Society and the media are quick to condemn when things go wrong. Joanne shows us the terrible, often invisible human cost in a system increasingly at odds with its role of protector and support to the most vulnerable.

Joanne runs at the Soho Theatre to Oct 31

This review was first published in Reviewsgate, Oct 2015 and slightly amended for here.