BWW Review: OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR, National Theatre, 10 August 2016
"This is our show," proclaims one of the musically angelic but devilishly foul-mouthed convent schoolgirls descending on Edinburgh for a choir competition. And by God it is. A cracking ensemble of six plays the vividly drawn gang, as well as everyone else they encounter - the world viewed with their female adolescent gaze. It's colourful, rough-edged, raucous and almost painfully intense: a stunning encapsulation of what it feels like to be teetering on the cusp of adulthood.
Lee Hall, who scored a hit with the thematically comparable Billy Elliot, has sympathetically adapted Alan Warner's beloved 1998 novel, retaining its whirlwind picaresque structure - at times as brash, impetuous and confused as the teens at its centre. The show premiered at Edinburgh last year and, following a successful tour, is now a welcome addition to the National's line-up.
Vicky Featherstone's exuberant production (straight through in 1hr 45) is anchored by the Mantrap, the dingy disco that provides the only outlet in the girls' small, seaside Scottish town. Chloe Lamford's nightclub set is authentically seedy and sticky, but just as the working-class girls transcend their circumstances during one hedonistic 24-hour spree, so the play/gig - songs superbly punctuate and illuminate the action - transports us to myriad locations.
There's a haze of Nineties nostalgia, from the flaming sambuccas and trips to buy CDs and Doc Martens to a plot strand driven by the search for a landline, and, reaching back further, a Breakfast Club quality to the gradual breaking down of social types. If a tad predictable in the coming-of-age beats, it does find a heartbreaking universality in those familiar roles and quandaries. There's issues galore - cancer, class, pregnancy, sexual awakening and familial woes all jostle for space - but somehow it works for a piece that evokes the teeming, heightened experience of being 17.
It's also blisteringly funny. Featherstone mines endless gags from the juxtaposition between the soaring harmonies during heavenly renditions of Mendelssohn, Handel, Bartok and Vaughan Williams and the choristers who instantly slouch into drinking, smoking, swearing, stripping and McDonald's-chomping.
The dialogue is earthy and eloquent: the convent school is nicknamed "the Virgin Megastore", formidable nun Sister Condron (who tells them they represent "God himself" in the contest - no pressure) becomes "Sister Condom", a semi-erotic encounter in a hospice is related with eye-watering frankness, and sperm is memorably described as like snot, "but warmer". Apocryphal tales become gospel in their rich mythologising and fumbles towards wisdom.
In a pitch-perfect cast, Melissa Allan is poignant as the cancer survivor - miraculously cured at Lourdes and determinedly making up for lost time - while Frances Mayli McCann and Caroline Deyga are hilarious as, respectively, lippy Kylah, who has doubts about her band Thunderpup, and eccentric Chell, whose winding anecdotes become a kind of dark poetry.
Kirsty MacLaren, Dawn Sievewright and Karen Fishwick prove marvellously versatile, with MacLaren giving us a glimpse of hyper Manda's depression - salved by "Cleopatra baths" with powdered milk - alongside quirky characters like a budgie cage-toting admirer. Fishwick movingly opens up middle-class, university-bound Kay and also evokes a pitiful divorcé and candid pregnant teen (one of seven from their year), while Sievewright is revelatory as mouthy but insecure leader Fionnula, plus an older pick-up artist and dodgy band member.
The varied, soul-bearing set list, from classical to Electric Light Orchestra and Bob Marley, is cleverly arranged by Martin Lowe (who won a Tony and Grammy for Once), with the clear voices effectively accompanied by Amy Shackcloth's onstage band. Each number is spine-tingling, granting both key individual moments and celebrating the power of ensemble. It's a paean to sisterly community and acceptance that skirts the sentimental, but is still rare enough on our stages to be a beautiful, brilliant force.
The Catholic repression that leads to reckless rebellion - a Virgin Mary statue watches the unfolding chaos censoriously - could use more exploration, but there's a quietly tragic running thread about the fear of lost potential and "life unlived", as well as astute recognition of the restrictive boxes we place girls in. It makes their short-lived victory all the more glorious: these vital, talented, fearless and fragile beings finding unapologetic self-acceptance and liberation, if only for one day.
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is at the National Theatre until 1 October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan