'Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour': Theater Review
'Billy Elliot' creator Lee Hall tackles a wilder kind of teen escapism in this riotous stage musical about a choir of foul-mouthed Catholic schoolgirls on the hunt for sex, booze and excitement.
The latest theatrical venture from Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, is a gloriously lewd coming-of-age musical about rowdy Scottish teenage choirgirls that pummels the senses like a heady cocktail of Pitch Perfect and Trainspotting. Launched to full houses at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, this lusty comic romp has been touring for several months ahead of its London premiere at the National Theatre. The show is directed by Vicky Featherstone, current artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, while the musical supervisor and arranger is Tony Award winner Martin Lowe, whose stage and screen credits include Once, War Horse, Mamma Mia! and the current West End smash Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Hall adapted Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour from Alan Warner's 1998 novel The Sopranos, a title which subsequently acquired very different cultural baggage, hence the name change. Clearly written in an era when Irvine Welsh's brand of filthy hedonism loomed large on the Scottish literary landscape, the book follows a disorderly choir of 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirls as they escape their stifling small-town life in remote coastal Oban to enjoy a rollercoaster ride of sex, drugs and alcoholic excess in Edinburgh. Lesbian crushes, teen pregnancies, shocking confessions, drunken collapses and scatological toilet emergencies all make an appearance.
Featherstone and Hall have inevitably stripped away some of the novel's dramatic detail in the transfer from page to stage, but they keep the 24-hour narrative arc largely intact. Judging by its warmly received London launch, this boisterous production will have more than enough life-affirming energy and cheerfully vulgar humor for a successful seven-week run in the capital. A brief touring detour to Connecticut also garnered positive reviews, potentially paving the way for a future New York transfer, although some of the raw Scottish accents and slang terms may grate on American ears.
The young all-female cast shares an easy stage chemistry, having been together since the Edinburgh premiere a year ago. Besides playing the main six girls, they also slip in and out of secondary characters, adopting a range of accents from cut-glass Miss Jean Brodie primness to peaty Highland brogue. Their dance routines are full of comic zing, especially in the tightly honed changes from wholesome hymn-singing angels to booze-chugging, trash-talking bad girls. Most impressively, their precisely blended voices sound sublime on the musical numbers, lending an aura of soothing beauty to even the most debauched scenes.
The music is sometimes performed a cappella, but generally backed by a three-piece live band. Lowe’s decision to punctuate Handel and Bach pieces with tunes by 1970s British soft-rockers Electric Light Orchestra feels a little random, only thinly justified as reflecting the retro tastes of one girl's parents. In fairness, ELO's orchestral pop arrangements lend themselves well to the cast's close harmonies, but a climactic inclusion of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" is a mawkish cliché too far. Spanning almost two hours with no intermission, this production could comfortably lose a couple of less essential numbers.
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was conceived by two male authors, and at times their depiction of Catholic schoolgirls as boozy, sex-starved nymphomaniacs smacks more of pornographic fantasy than reality. That said, the bawdy style is purposely exaggerated while the story is essentially a warm-hearted celebration of empowered young women with no time for sleazy, predatory men. "We only f— human beings," is one of many cruelly funny knockbacks. Indeed, the all-female team of actors and musicians feels like a feminist statement in itself, especially when the cast take on male roles, their voices and body language suddenly assuming a comically pompous register.
Featherstone's production is spare. Chloe Lamford's single set resembles a grubby small-town nightclub but also doubles as other locations, while props and visual effects are minimal. Even the choir's eventful late-night return to Oban, which climaxes with a drug-fueled orgy and a house fire, is evoked with just minor pyrotechnics and trippy microphone reverb.
The show is terrific fun for most of its long running time, only dragging a little in its closing stages, with multiple false endings and tonally jarring swerves into bleaker dramatic terrain. A rousing speech about love ("this big mystery at the center of the world, huge and silent") seems to promise a serious take-home message, only to fizzle out. Hall and Featherstone gesture toward darker and deeper themes, but ultimately their chief concern seems to be turning riotous teenage hedonism into exhilarating entertainment. Mission accomplished.
Venue: Dorfman, National Theatre, London
Cast: Melissa Allan, Caroline Deyga, Karen Fishwick, Kirsty MacLaren, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright
Director: Vicky Featherstone
Playwright: Lee Hall, based on the book The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Band: Amy Shackcloth, Becky Brass, Emily Linden
Set & costume designer: Chloe Lamford
Lighting designer: Lizzie Powell
Sound designer: Mike Walker
Music supervisor & arranger: Martin Lowe
Presented by National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre