"It's a glorious, rude thing, full of life and hope. Everyone should see it"
The opening moments sum up the show. Six schoolgirls in kilts step forward, hands folded neatly. They lift their eyes to the hills and sing a snatch of Mendelssohn like angels. But the second the strains of song die away, they slump, puff out their cheeks and emerge in the disaffected pose of youth.
And that's Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour for you – a musical adaptation by Lee Hall of Alan Warner's novel The Sopranos. Its surface is all foul-mouthed attitudes and bolshie teenagers, as its heroines use the excuse of a choir competition to go on the lash in Edinburgh. But underneath beats a heart of pure emotional gold. It is simultaneously the rudest, the most exuberant and the most touching show in the West End.
The plot is a thin thread, beautifully woven. Hall's structure and Vicky Featherstone's swift, tight direction take the girls from excited anticipation – "Let's go fucking mental" – to drunken disaster – disqualification from the choir competition when one of their number "threw up during the Vaughan Williams" – and final reckoning back in home in Oban, where all face expulsion. En route, they encounter a whole host of characters from frightened bar tenders, to prim nuns, to predatory and ridiculous men, every one of them played, with a twitch of the shoulders, or a curl of the lip and a swagger of the hips, by the six actresses who also play the choir.
The vignettes of their encounters are punctuated by music, both sacred and very profane, from Bach to the Electric Light Orchestra, all sung with zest and skill. Everything about the show gleams with care – the playing of the all-female band, Imogen Knight's choreography, Chloe Lamford's deliberately shambolic set, dominated by a statue of Our Lady with a red, beating heart. And above all the writing, which has the precision and rhythm of urban poetry.
I've seen this National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre co-production three times now as it has journeyed from its Traverse Theatre premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015 via a national tour and a sojourn at the National Theatre which enabled it to pick up the Olivier for best comedy. Each time has been pure pleasure but what I noticed watching the opening night of its West End season is that is has simultaneously broadened and deepened. It has expanded its comedy and its musical panache – it really rocks the house – while the performances mine deeper into the subtlety of the characters portrayed.
It deserves to turn its six excellent actresses into stars – five of them have been with the production from the first, and the new girl slots in so effortlessly that she might as well have been. They find touching individuality in each of their characters who, without their care and conviction, could have lapsed into caricature.
So we grow to understand brassy Chell (Caroline Deyga) who still misses her dead father, lost at sea ("We kept his shaving things on a shelf in case he was stranded on an inlet"); reluctant virgin Orla (newcomer Isis Hainsworth, making an astonishing stage debut) who knows she is dying of cancer; posh girl Kay (Karen Fishwick) who has blighted her own life chances; sad Manda (Kirsty MacLaren) so poor yet so determined to be happy that she treats herself to "Cleopatra baths" made with two spoonfuls of powdered milk, mouthy Kylah (Frances Mayli McCann) who dreams of musical stardom; and bolshie Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) whose horizons open and whose sense of possibility blossoms even as she sees the lives of her friends tumbled into chaos.
They effortlessly embody the play's compassionate gaze at lives that are pinioned and restricted by circumstance, but are lived by people who want to suck out of every passing moment each chance of happiness and each golden morning. It's a glorious, rude thing, full of life and hope. Everyone should see it.
“A hilarious, poignant portrait of essentially good, naïve girls having a reckless stab at being bad, and being brave, eager to experience everything life can throw at them”
“A joyous, moving musical riot!”
Many of us who went to provincial girls’ schools will have fond, if somewhat vague, memories of school trips whose educational purpose vanished in a haze of underage drinking and exploratory fumbles with unsuitable youths. But not all of us will have embraced our freedom from the classroom with the same enthusiasm as the Catholic schoolgirls of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, an imaginary convent school in the Scottish town of Oban.
Orla, Chell, Kay, Manda, Kylah and Fionnula are members of their school choir, visiting Edinburgh to take part in a choral competition. Lee Hall’s musical drama, adapted from Alan Warner’s 1998 novel, The Sopranos, opens with an angelic chorus of Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes”. But any comparison with choirmaster Gareth Malone’s well drilled troupes of once disorderly schoolchildren, their lives transformed by the redemptive power of music, ends right there in this joyous, moving show.
Boarding the school bus with a heady selection of alcohol concealed in innocent Thermos flasks and lemonade bottles, the girls’ sole purpose during their time in the big city is to “get mental” - and to be disqualified from the competition as quickly as possible, so as to return to Oban in time for “some slow jigs and a quick sailor’s hornpipe” with Navy submariners in the terrible local nightclub, The Mantrap.
This they accomplish in flamboyant style, embarking on a riotous tour of Edinburgh’s low dives, punctuated by an assortment of musical numbers, form ELO’s Mr Blue Sky to Vaughan Williams’s O Taste and See. As the girls’ stories unfold, a plangent contrast emerges between their boundless appetite for life, love and experience, and the narrowness of the futures available to them, in which teenage pregnancy looms large – Our Lady’s unofficial soubriquet is the “Virgin Megastore”.
Hall’s credits include the book for Billy Elliot - the musical, and screenplays for Billy Elliot and War Horse. His adaptation of Warner’s novel, premiered last year at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, is framed by the sketchy conceit that the girls are putting on a show at The Mantrap, based on their Edinburgh experiences.
The sextet of characters is distinctly schematic: they include Kay, a posh girl with university aspirations, Chell, who proudly announces that her sister is also her aunt, and Manda, whose idea of luxury is a “Cleopatra bath” - two scoops of powdered milk in a tub of hot water. Their arrestingly foul-mouthed narratives are infused with a powerful strain of sentimentality, and as each gross-out adventure succeeds its predecessor in a 105-minute show without an interval, longueurs threaten. It’s an overlong, slightly flimsy piece of writing.
But this said, Vicky Featherstone’s swift-paced direction gives the production real lift – and the freshness and vigour of the young cast turn it into pure gold. Backed by an excellent three-piece band, Melissa Allan, Caroline Deyga, Karen Fishwick, Kirsty MacLaren, Frances Mayli McCann and Dawn Sievewright as the girls, sing like fallen angels and dance like maenads, with impeccable comic timing and pathos that wrings your heart. And thanks to their exquisite discipline, blazing energy and absolute belief in their characters a so-so script is transformed into one of the great theatrical experiences of the year.
“Delightfully potty-mouthed and sex-obsessed, it's not to be missed”
If you were to imagine a racy cross between Once A Catholic, The History Boys and The Commitments, you'd still only get a pale inkling of the joys unleashed by this rude, raucous and irresistible show.
Adapted by the Billy Elliot author Lee Hall from Alan Warner’s award-winning 1998 novel The Sopranos, the piece tells the story of six 17-year-old girls from the choir of a Catholic state school in Oban – nicknamed the Virgin Megastore – as they head to Edinburgh to take part in a national competition. They are not going to let a small detail like a major contest cramp their style, though, during their free afternoon when they embark on an alcoholic, sex-obsessed rampage across the city. “Fuck the singing ... we’re just gonna go mental”: they are true to their word and this leads to some outrageously funny misadventures and touching moments of self-discovery in what amounts to a 24-hour rite of passage.
You won’t find a more exhilarating ensemble anywhere than that provided by the six gifted young performers in Vicky Featherstone's wonderfully fluent and vivid co-production for the National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre, Newcastle. The success of the adaptation and the staging derive from two brilliant decisions. The first is the idea of letting these girls play all the many parts, including the leering male lechers. It's as if the central characters have made a show about their experiences and that that they are mounting it in the Mantrap, the grotty nightclub in Oban that's mentioned in the story. The second is the idea of putting live music and singing at the core of the drama so that the event is more like a gig than a conventional play and the emotional range is powerfully extended.
Backed by a four-piece, all-female band, the magnificent cast deliver angelic renditions of Mendelssohn, Handel and Vaughan Williams one moment, only to revert to their potty-mouthed, bantering, sex-obsessed selves the next. Those composers can't often have featured on the same bill as cover versions of Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra (also exquisitely arranged by Martin Lowe). The musical range is extraordinary as the piece captures the heady state of being on the cusp of adulthood – at once fearless and afraid, invincible and vulnerable. This a show that defiantly refuses to be censorious about young women grabbing life by the balls. But it is shaded with the poignant sense that “we are just a tiny percentage of what we could have been”. Hence the slightly wistful note in the dreamy “everything's gonna be all right” chorus of Bob Marley's “Three Little Birds” at the end. First seen in Edinburgh last year, it's not to be missed now at the National.
"‘Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is back to smash up the West End. A sweary, funny, brilliant breath of fresh air. A joyous punch in the air. This big-hearted show captures the giddy head-rush of being young, fearless and living in the moment."
“An absolute blast, full of filth and fury, wit and wonder”
"Sublime singing and an exhilarating blast of female agency. Fizzingly vivacious, gloriously foul-mouthed. Exactly what the West End needs"
Chell, Fionnula, Kay, Kylah, Manda and Orla, welcome to the West End. You are exactly what it needs. If anyone is going to draw a fresh audience into the sometimes staid heartland of London theatre it is these fizzingly vivacious, gloriously foul-mouthed and yet angelically tuneful teenagers from a convent school choir in Oban, hell-bent on hell-raising on a day-trip to Edinburgh. This joyous production, first seen in the capital in a sell-out production at the National last year, recently won a well-deserved Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
Our Ladies is many things, but first and foremost it’s an exhilarating blast of female agency. The six superb actresses between them play all the characters in the narrative, including some decidedly dubious middle-aged men, and are backed for the multiple musical interludes by an all-female band.
They’re refreshingly unconcerned what we think of them too; ‘This is our show’, they assert with confidence at the start of Lee Hall’s masterful adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos and off they go, a whirligig of energy and profanity.
Vicky Featherstone, moonlighting from her job as artistic director of the Royal Court, offers a production of all-round perfect pitch, in which secrets and sadnesses gradually come to light.
Behind all the bravado and braggadocio are fears for a future that doesn’t look very bright, especially for reluctant virgin Orla (Isis Hainsworth), who has been treated for cancer. Also for supposed class swot Kay (Karen Fishwick), whose university aspirations are about to be scuppered by unplanned pregnancy.
The six women make a sublime noise when they sing together, moving effortlessly from Bartók to Mr Blue Sky in numbers that range from the thumpingly exuberant to the almost unbearably poignant. The closing song is an exquisitely bittersweet couple of minutes, marking the end of a perfect-disastrous 24 hours in which anything has seemed possible. Real life is fast closing in, but there is no way that these ladies are going to go quietly.