By Tony Allen
As a slight tangent from the series of books vs movies, I am going to compare Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos to its musical adaptation for the stage, 2015’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. The play is named after the Scottish Catholic convent school the six foremost characters attend when they take an ill-fated trip to Edinburgh to participate in a televised choir competition and, like some UEA freshers, end up in a mire of sex, profanity and alcohol. Quite a bit of sex, profanity and alcohol, in fact.
It’s hard to argue that the show, adapted by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall and staged by an experienced team from the National Theatre of Scotland, is anything other than an improvement on Warner’s novel. After all, his script reads like a what’s-what of alcoholic beverages for the uninitiated and includes pages full of quick-witted, yet not unbelievable, dialogue.
An impossible task though it is to compare the two mediums like for like, while both have the same plot, their perspectives diverge quite markedly. As Warner broadly concentrates on the settings they visit, and the girls’ resultant high-jinks, Hall’s script (perhaps owing as much to necessity, or the limitations of the stage, as much as his artistic endeavour) is much more interested in getting inside the girls’ minds and exploring the reasons behind, and consequences of, their wild actions. As such, it is a lot less throwaway and more encouraging of sympathy towards the girls.
This particular theatrical release thus differs from 99% of film adaptations inasmuch as it is in fact less visually descriptive than the novel. How so? The imagery provoked in the book is far superior to Hall’s barren staging, based on the weak idea that the girls are putting on some sort of show in their local nightclub to describe their big day out.
However, look past this dodgy premise and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour gives Warner’s novel a striking lucidity simply not afforded by the novel. Its simplicity is the key to its success- condensing an entire novel into less than two hours of course requires serious cutting and streamlining. So, Hall has chosen to feature just the main six characters, the novel’s foremost schoolgirls who mimic those they meet over the course of their day.
And thanks to that, the girls are much more striking when they are laid bare on stage. A criticism I had of Warner’s book on first reading was the complexity of it. The list of the entire choir at the start was excessive, confusing, and left me trying to remember characters who had no relevance to the narrative whatsoever. However, re-reading after seeing Our Ladies, the novel makes far more sense, as the reader can streamline their attention on the six they have seen brought to life on stage.
When I saw the play at London’s National Theatre, it was quite a way through its run, having toured throughout the UK after its 2015 Edinburgh Fringe debut. The band and actresses were extremely well versed, each song was note-perfect and they knew exactly how to play specific lines for laughs, with a few minor alterations from the original script.
Of course, the play leaves some interesting details out. However, as I’m sure other contributors will note about the Hollywood counterparts to their favourite novels, the visual adaptation offers more memorable particular moments. For example, I doubt I’ll ever forget Dawn Sievewright as Fionnula holding the entire, sold-out Dorfman Theatre in the palm of her hand as she stood at the edge of the stage and admitted quietly, in stark contrast to her previous demeanour, the severity of the girls’ situation after everything had collapsed around them.
Some jokes went over the heads of those in attendance who clearly had never read the novel – so for context, Warner’s work provided important background for those of us who had done our homework- a commentary, if you like, on the play.
When it comes to the original idea- of course Hall germinated the seeds sewed by Warner, often borrowing particularly incisive pieces of dialogue. The vivid characterisation is the result of the novel, no doubt, but only one made me laugh out loud repeatedly. Only one brought me to the verge of tears at the end and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Only one made me feel like I might just, for a couple of hours, have attended Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School too. The book was good – but it laid the foundations for the play to be even better.
Image by Tony Allen