Brighton Festival 2016
In a National Theatre of Scotland/Live Theatre production directed by Vicky Featherstone, Alan Warner’s The Sopranos adapted by Lee Hall as Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour comes to the Theatre Royal on a first leg of a new tour after their sell-out at the Edinburgh Fringe last August.
The National Theatre of Scotland/Live Theatre bring Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour to the Theatre Royal on a first leg of a new tour after their sell-out at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. Directed by Vicky Featherstone who took leave as Artistic Director of the Royal Court, it more than bears out accolades heaped on it.
Both Featherstone and Lee Hall fell for Alan Warner’s 1998 The Sopranos, where six Catholic seventeen-year-old schoolgirls entering a choir competition go to the bad for good, spectacularly. The six-pack here play their central roles and a range of others, from schoolteacher and nun through a louche gamut of men.
At the core of this mesmerizingly rude, c-word studded anatomically vivid up-front rush of adrenalin and what’s too easily cornered as hormonal wildness, lie crusading stories. Censoring adolescents as they explore risk-taking and sexuality, to map their own identity, becomes more extreme if you repress it. And only sex, not love is ever discussed with adolescents, and that (here) only negatively. Most of all that other taboo, death isn’t confronted anywhere. Thus show comes nearest to Lee Hall’s devastating early (1996) masterpiece for radio Spoonfaced Steinberg than anything else he’s subsequently done, and is the finer for it.
The music’s a superb mix of Mendelssohn, Handel, Bach and ELO hits. The foul-mouthed choir – Featherstone admonishes a culture that allows boys but not girls this privilege – rehearse and perform a school for striptease to Handel’s ‘My Heart is Inditing’ which coronation anthem will never seem the same again.
It’s the moment of liberation; in any case their uniforms are stolen by a pervert in a club later. That’s one of the politer incidents. Kylah’s dad has a 1970s ELO record, which the girls plunder for such standards as ‘Mr Blue Sky’, beautifully nailed to their choral honours – but then their rendition of Mendelssohn (‘Lift Thine Eyes’) the haunting Bartok ‘Enchanting Song’ and Vaughan Williams’ ‘O Taste and See’ which suggests exactly what the choir do, are swept in as counterpoints of serenity, with their own depth not guyed by context.
It’s a key musical moment of the play, which isn’t sung at all. The ELO pieces puncture authority, are private communal acts of sisterhood where temporary equality and mutual support will evaporate when life paths separate them. That such precision and versatility ranging as it does from reverent to raucous from raunch to rhapsody should be performed with such exuberance, bespeaks musicianship and direction of the highest order. Martin Lowe’s arrangement and supervision is famed, but his unerring versatility here is what makes his characterising key moments with music to match, so special.
Hall’s no stranger to portraying life-threatening illness. Orla (Melissa Alan, a memorable soprano) has the tricky task of conveying subdued exuberance with a frantic edge. She’s come through chemo, but cancer will return and she ahs to make a decision. She wants to experience so much, sex above all. At one point she relates how she tries to have sex with a dying young man and then realizes it’s about pleasuring him, virtually comatose, which she manages but the denouement’s a disaster. he sits up, she hits him; his bowels explode. It’s also love she realizes – however fragile and fleeting – when she meets geeky Chopper carrying a budgie cage.
Orla’s moment of transcendence parallels another. Karen Fishwick’s versatile impersonating men throughout, but as posh uni-bound Kay she carries a dreadful secret for any Catholic family. It’s more frightening though not less life-changing than her improbable would-be-lover no-hope Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright, equally versatile as a man) discovering she’s gay. With Kay vulnerable Finnoula admits her attraction and moves in.
Kay exquisitely rebuffs Fionnula; playing her instead the opening Prelude from Bach’s G Major Cello Suite, though on a record (she’s meant to be a cellist). As she does so, all Fionnula can express in her realization of love over sex, is prayer, which she counterpoints to the soaring cello. It’s a heart-stopping moment, analogous to Spoonface Steinberg, the autistic seven-year-old genius dying of cancer invoking opera arias to commune with her own extinction.
Caroline Deyga’s Cell commands as a performer though her role’s to keep the atmosphere pungent. Delicate-seeming Kirsty McLaren as Manda also surprizes by confident sexual conquest, and Frances Mayli McCann’s Kylah all bubble with shorter narratives – liberation from a bad band, confidence to pursue a different music – that makes one wonder what life, not the play, will do with them.
The girls’ nightclub excursion after being eliminated from the competition in disgrace, is the set’s spectacular. High on mushroom lager, finding only the bouncer’s in the club, they set off fireworks with more consequences than even the production conjures. That denouement, involving a man locked in a toilet and another with his toe cut half off, seals one avenue but opens everything including Cell’s refusal to use the resultant glow as a Sign when a priest tries to recruit the incident as propaganda and save their reputations, if not souls.
If it’s Orla’s and Kay’s journeys we’re on our seats for, with Finnoula’s moment close behind, this show shines above all as an ensemble, with equal billing as singers, an equality of other roles fanning the talents of these stunningly versatile performers. Writing as well as singing is sovereign but Hall here engineers with Featherstone moments that delve far deeper. No wonder Hall wanted to do it. Featherstone too revels in stretching directorial brilliance to an edgily transcendent musical. It’s helped by Chloe Lamford’s clean unfussy set with impasto’d backdrop that lighting designer Lizzie Powell picks out to shift atmospheres from sacred to disco profanation. Outstanding.