By Tony Allen
In last week’s heat, all most of us wanted to do was relax outside with an ice cold bottle of lemon flavoured Hooch. Alas, the mercury spike didn’t halt the rampage of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour onto the West End, following successful runs in the USA, Australia, the National Theatre and at the Edinburgh Festival.
The basic premise of the musical play, based on Alan Warner’s cult novel The Sopranos and adapted for the stage by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, is that we’re transported back to the ‘90s in Scotland, where six Catholic schoolgirls travel from their quiet port town of Oban to Edinburgh to represent their school in a choir competition. But they are determined to lose, in favour of an alcohol-soaked, wild day out and the chance to get back to the port in time for the last dances (and maybe more) at their one grotty nightclub, the Mantrap. (Think, the Waterfront with a proper tiled dancefloor, a bit more Hooch and the occasional group of spunky sailors).
Backed by a three piece band of Amy Shackcloth (keys), Emily Linden (guitars) and Becky Brass (percussion), we see the full rollercoaster of highs and lows the girls experience through their day, interspersed with some choral numbers and their takes on their favourite songs, mainly ELO tunes they have grown to love through their parents.
The genius of the piece is in its simplicity, which led to its being crowned the Best New Comedy at this year’s Olivier Awards. The girls narrate their own story in their own, oft-profane, words and none of the 100 minutes without an interval are wasted on complicated settings or other choristers outside of the six. The characters they meet on the way are all included as sometimes-savage pastiches by the girls. Chloe Lamford’s sparse nightclub set design sets the mood while allowing for the focus to truly rest on the action and the emotions.
Director Vicky Featherstone and the creative team have made some small alterations to last year’s National Theatre production, with a couple of songs and a few details differing. But the magic remains all there. William Fiennes’ description of the young characters of Warner’s novel as “an Ecstasy-generation St Trinians,” still rings vividly true on the evidence of the play.
Martin Lowe’s musical arrangements provide some of the most touching and boisterous moments. All are given a spell in the spotlight; Linden’s guitar licks really make the raucous rendition of ELO’s Long Black Road. Frances Mayli McCann, playing Kylah, is the best singer – so it makes sense that it is her character who is (for a while) in a rock band and the musical lead. And she doesn’t let us down on the first full band number Mr. Blue Sky or at any point as she guides the girls through the myriad of different songs and styles.
But this is more than a musical or the ‘gig’ that some describe it as. The acting is absolutely superb. Kirsty MacLaren and Caroline Deyga portray the struggles of their troubled characters Manda and Chell with consummate sympathy, but without ever missing the opportunity to inject laughs into their grim situations. MacLaren’s curt humour in her delivery and Deyga’s excellent lead vocals on Sweet Talkin’ Woman stand out.
With several subplots emerging between the girls as the day wears on, the most interesting is between principal storyteller, the alpha-female Fionnula, who shares several moments of brutal honesty with the audience later, and middle-class outsider Kay who bears a heartbreaking secret. Luckily, these two most important parts are played by the two strongest actors, with Dawn Sievewright and Karen Fishwick respectively creating bolshie, cheeky and at times heart-rending characters. Both also conjure some of the funniest impressions.
Fishwick navigates the difficult course between serious and drunk, cutting and silly, with ease while Sievewright’s timing is impeccable as she delivers more hilarious and breathtakingly deep lines than one can begin to describe. Sievewright also leads a stunning rendition of Judie Tzuke’s For You backed by sublime harmonies from the rest of the cast, one of the musical highlights alongside ELO’s Wild West Hero and Bach’s choral piece Agnus Dei.
However, the outstanding individual performance comes from a somewhat unexpected source. Eighteen-year-old Isis Hainsworth is the same age as The Sopranos and the youngest in the company. But playing cancer survivor Orla, she totally owns one of the foremost roles, which she is inheriting third-hand in an otherwise unchanged primary cast. Hainsworth takes the complexities, anxieties and inexperience of Orla, plus her monster monologue, in her stride. What’s more, her voice makes a superb addition to the choir.
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour’s West End transfer, then, is nothing short of a triumph. The music is spot on, the acting is at once sensitive and hilarious and the ending is as thought provoking and truly tragic as the beginning is comic and carefree.
For an emotional workout, a healthy dose of female/youth/working class empowerment (delete as you wish) and a non-judgemental, compassionate view of the teens demonised left, right and centre in the media on their terms and on their level, I am yet to find an equal to Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.
Image taken by Tony Allen
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour runs until 2nd September at the Duke of York’s Theatre, Monday-Saturday 7:30pm plus Wednesday and Saturday 2:30pm with tickets from £10.