running until 2 September
After several years when it looked like this stage adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos might be stuck in development hell, writer Lee Hall and director Vicky Featherstone finally mounted the premiere of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour in Edinburgh in 2015. Since then, it has toured Scotland and the north of England before Londoners hailed its arrival at the National Theatre last year – a run which won Best New Comedy at this year’s Olivier Awards. Now Our Ladies are making their West End debut as the show transfers to the Duke of York’s, injecting a fierce dose of teenage rebellion into the walls of this Victorian playhouse.
What’s thrilling about this show is that it allows these six young actresses to be very, very funny – in a way that isn’t offered all too often in the West End. And not just funny, but hysterically rude, brash, bold and ballsy, with killer voices to match, as they storm through the divey bars of Edinburgh and the hits of ELO. These Ladies are certainly not ladylike, in the traditional sense. From the first moment they break free of their teachers – and their traditional Catholic school uniforms – they drink, smoke and swear their way through the show, on a mission to “get mental” and pick up some (mostly incredibly ill-advised) male companionship along the way.
For all their shamelessness, and some truly terrible decision-making, it’s impossible not to fall in love with these characters, who exhibit great warmth as well as palpable naivety. They drink in only the way that reckless teenagers can – disgusting combinations of spirits disguised in a Thermos, shot after shot of flaming sambuca – and their enthusiasm for clumsy sex seems matched only by their enthusiasm for a McDonalds (a Barbie happy meal, in the case of Caroline Deyga’s Chell).
It’s true that each girl might fit neatly into a box: the girl from the estate who’s had a series of different father figures; the ‘posh’ girl who plays cello and has a university offer (but is hiding a secret); the brassy leader who wants to make it as a singer; and the popular girl who is questioning her sexuality. But perhaps the reason that these types of characters reoccur so often in coming-of-age stories, is because they grapple with formative teenage experiences. At the age of 17, these young women are full of hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities, questioning everything from their sexual desire to their place in the world. And for many of them, we wonder what the future can really hold, in a small town where poverty and teenage pregnancy loom large in many of their destinies. In Lee Hall’s script it is the little details that become most affecting: for Manda (Kirsty MacLaren), luxury is two spoonfuls of milk powder in her bath for a ‘Cleopatra bath’. Equally moving is cancer-stricken Orla (impressive newcomer Isis Hainsworth), who takes a shine to a shy oddball she meets in a bar while the other girls set their sights on some “slow jigs and a sailor’s hornpipe” with the visiting submariners at the local ‘Mantrap’ nightclub.
It’s very much an ensemble piece – their group nomination in the Oliviers now makes more sense to me – but I was particularly drawn to Kay (Karen Fishwick), her more timid opening scenes belying a powerful voice and canny character acting, as the cast also take on the roles of teachers, town locals and the array of men they meet throughout the day. Dawn Sievewright impresses as Fionnula, whose story has the most growth over the course of the show, while Frances Mayli McCann (as Kylah) has a belter of a voice, stealing the show during the group musical numbers as the opening strains of Mendelssohn give way to storming performances that feel more like a gig than a play.
While the girls recount their day in the capital, Chloe Lamford’s set remains the Mantrap nightclub, allowing for a heap of discarded empties that signal the booziness of the show as well as a great house band, also all-female – this is a show that celebrates forceful women of all kinds. The future might be rushing towards our choir girls quicker than they are prepared for, and there are many restrictions and barriers to their dreams, but this remains a tribute to female agency. “This is our show”, they proclaim – and you’d be loath to argue with them.
There’s little let-up in the pace, but I defy anyone to come out without a smile on their face. It’s messy, irreverent, joyful and a riot of fun.
This review is of a preview performance on 11 May. Click here for more information.