BWW Review: OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR, Duke of York's Theatre
From The Sound of Music to Gareth Malone's The Choir, the transformative power of choral singing has provided a wealth of feel-good stories. The discipline, the communal spirit and the beauty of the music bring out the best in everyone.
Just not the 17-year-old pupils of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a fictional convent school in the Scottish coastal town of Oban. For them, the prospect of a trip to Edinburgh to compete in a choral competition is merely a chance to be off the leash for an afternoon and "get mental". Their primary concern is how much vodka can be smuggled onto the school coach in lemonade bottles.
Lee Hall's musical drama, adapted from Alan Warner's 1998 novel, The Sopranos, opens with a sweetly immaculate rendering of Mendelssohn's "Lift Thine Eyes", the choristers - Orla, Chell, Kylah, Manda, Kay and Fionnula - neat and demure in school uniform. Prize-worthy stuff. But in truth they hope to be disqualified from the contest as quickly as possible so as to be back in Oban in time for the slow dances "and a quick sailor's hornpipe" with visiting submariners in the grubby local nightclub, The Mantrap.
Incorporating songs that range from ELO's "Mr Blue Sky" and the theme from Brookside to Jimmy Cliff, Vaughan Williams and Bach, the show tracks the girls (a sextet in more ways than one) through the highs and lows of what turns out to be a 24-hour rampage. But this isn't St Trinian's: The Musical. As individual stories unfold, a poignant mismatch emerges between the potty-mouthed teenagers' overbrimming lust for life and the cramped futures that await them. In Oban, teenage pregnancy casts a wide shadow. Not for nothing is the school known locally as the "Virgin Megastore".
Lee Hall, whose credits as an adapter include the screenplays of Billy Elliot and War Horse, again shows a sure hand in restructuring a narrative for the stage. The mix of choral songs (stunning six-part arrangements by Martin Lowe), ribald banter and intimate monologues not only provides a constant change of tone and pace in the course of nearly two hours without interval, but also taps into the provincial Scottish culture whose club nights and ceilidhs traditionally offer such elements. Designer Chloe Lamford's vinyl-tiled dancefloor surveyed by a plaster model of the Virgin Mary reinforces the community centre vibe.
Hall's most striking gambit, however, is to have the girls embody all the other characters in their story, from stern Sister Codron (aka Condom) the headmistress to the various barmen, bouncers, weirdos and lechers encountered on their reckless odyssey. It takes a while to get used to the fast switching in and out of different characters without the help of a costume.
It may also take a while for the ear to adjust to an accent, which gives the word "girls" two syllables, sometimes three. But even if Vicky Featherstone's lively direction isn't fully alert to these potential difficulties, it compensates. So constant is the flow of wit and imagination that even if you only catch half of it, it's enough.
Ultimately, though, it's the young cast that make Our Ladies a must-see. The youngest member, Isis Hainsworth (new to this West End transfer from the NT, and before that the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh), deserves an ovation to herself for the delicate transparency of her playing of Orla, a teenage cancer survivor whose confessions break taboos you may have forgotten still exist.
Kirsty MacLaren is horribly believable as the undernourished Manda, whose father regularly shares her bath, and Dawn Sievewright's mix of blowsy vitality and blighted optimism will undo even the hardest heart. Staggeringly rude and raucous, yet hugely moving.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan