Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
In a small town by the Scottish coast, a group of girls sing in the school choir. Alcohol and sex are other popular pastimes at their convent school and, despite all the efforts of the nuns, it’s looking like a record year for teenage pregnancy. Meanwhile, our girls are off to Edinburgh for the first time for a posh choral competition. Of course, they have other plans – and anarchy ensues.
Based on Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos, Lee Hall’s adaptation takes the form of a feelgood musical play that is zippingly entertaining yet achingly human – and funny with it all the way. We do laugh but probably shouldn’t judge as we watch this precocious sextet flirt with adulthood, coming to grips with cancer, pregnancy, sexuality and magic-mushroom lager.
Cannily, Hall avoids playing on the Catholic or social disadvantage themes, focusing instead on the friendship that unites the girls, their sense of coming from somewhere. Their small town may not be much, but it has given them their identity – no matter that they don’t even have a “sophisticated” Chinese takeaway and that the only exotic thing is the sailors off the submarine at the local club. And they do harmonise wickedly like angels, providing a running commentary in song via Handel, Vaughn Williams or their beloved Electric Light Orchestra.
Nevertheless, Hall uses that vitality to keep a strongly social heart beating throughout, which drives not only the characters but also makes us think hard about our own connection with them. And in this National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre production, director Vicky Featherstone runs with this to create a play that is deeply layered in both structure and message.
Her bubbly cast of six – Melissa Allan, Caroline Deyga, Karen Fishwick, Kirsty MacLaren, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright – don’t let her down, endearing us to their characters, impressing with their skilful portrayals and team spirit. They multi-role confidently, although the distinctions between parts are not always as clear as they should be.
Movement from choreographer Imogen Knight is carefully restrained where the smallest gestures speak the loudest, while Mike Walker’s sound is similarly subtle, mixing the vocals through mini hair mics and handhelds with the balanced harmony of the three-piece band.
Arranged by Martin Lowe, the sung numbers blend seamlessly into the script where the voices are natural, refreshingly devoid of West End warble or R’n’B wobble. A missed opportunity is not having the recorded Bach prelude played on the keyboard.
The makers know they have a hit on their hands, but where does it go from here? Is it too Scottish? Too small-town and bawdy? Can it travel south of the border and beyond? Certainly its content doesn’t seem to have hindered the book’s success. And if they need surtitles on Broadway then so be it.