Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 2 September 2017
IN WHICH MICHAEL ADAIR LOSES HIS THEATRE-CRITIC VIRGINITY TO A PACK OF SCOTTISH MINXES… A few years ago, when High School Musical and Glee were in their pomp, we were forever seeing beautiful American schoolchildren with immaculate teeth, bursting into song and overcoming life’s adversities in glaring colour and merciless cheer.
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour provides the glorious antithesis: directed by Vicky Featherstone, adapted by Lee Hall from Alan Warner’s novel ‘The Sopranos’, it follows six Catholic school girls from Oban on a day trip to Edinburgh for a choir competition. Thy are warned by Sister that they are not just representing the eponymous school (nicknamed ‘The Virgin Megastore’) but also God himself. Their response? ’Let’s go fucking mental’.
What ensues is 105 straight minutes of wonderful chaos , as our girls wend their way through the pubs and clubs of Edinburgh – swearing, singing, searing with energy. At first we have the angelic choral harmonies of Mendelssohn, soon replaced by an angry and defiant burst of Jeff Lynne’s Mr Blue Sky as the school uniforms are inevitably ditched for mini skirts and fishnets as the anything-but-virtuous pupils authoritatively swagger around the set in true rock n’ roll style. It’s sneering and it’s sleazy, in marvellous fashion and Francis Mayli McCann as Kylah, in particular, gives an electrifying, caustic energy to the musical numbers.
The girls are funny – and what a joy it is to see a cast made up entirely of young, funny women. The banter and teasing are quick-witted and constant, in a way that feels almost improvised; their language is filthy. For instance Orla (Isis Hainsworth), recovering from cancer and with less sexual experience than her equally underage friends, asks Manda (Kirsty MacLaren) what jizz is. She is soon matter-of-factly informed that it is ‘just like snot, only warmer.’
Chloe Lamford’s set evokes memories of the worst worn-out British dive-bars of a certain era – a sticky tiled dance floor, inexplicable carpet and colour palette to match any childhood school disco. There is seating at bar stools at the side of the stage for some of the audience, leaving no place to hide for a hugely talented cast who are not given a single moment’s respite in an energetic performance.
The six leads are the only actors, joined by three female band members lingering in the background. The story is cleverly woven together as each cast member ducks in and out to play the motley crew of characters they encounter in their journey across the city- lecherous drunks, nuns, police officers. More to praise than to take issue with, but if there was to be any criticism it would be that the quick pace of the dialogue and static nature of the set sometimes made it hard to pick up when we were encountering a new secondary character, or indeed where we were supposed to be.
As the floor of the stage becomes more prominently coated in empty bottles, shot glasses and cigarette packets, the play fizzes with hormones and the quest for sensation. The six girls’ appetite for the moment is infectious, yet for these young women – of whom only one to aspires to university – growing into adulthood is essentially a process of losing your potential. To burn brightly seems like the most reasonable decision of all.
So for all of its humour and mischievousness, the play is ultimately lifted to a higher level by a flickering poignancy. The girls are perhaps no older than 16 and yet we see Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) sincerely lamenting on ‘what we could have been’. Chell’s (Caroline Deyga) ‘We’ve got the rest of our lives ahead of us!’ becomes a rallying cry for self-destruction, and not an optimistic claim to a broader horizon. For Orla, death could well be part of that blind journey sooner than the others, and it’s an obstacle she’s ill-equipped to circumvent seeing losing her virginity, symbolising entry into adulthood, as a way to make it ‘all feel ok’. This tension of hopelessness and impending doom makes it more than a reversioning of St. Trinians.
box office 0844 871 7623 to 2 Sept