Chris O’Dowd put it best. After seeing Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, the Irish actor tweeted:
Which is about as apt as it gets. Lee Hall’s musical adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos (not to be confused with the TV show about a New Jersey mob family) swirls together ingredients from both films: sweet-voiced choir singers, religious guilt, excessive drinking, poverty, ill-advised sex, sketchy drug use, disease, sisterly camaraderie, property destruction, filthy toilets, and occasionally impenetrable Scottish accents. And, as O’Dowd said, it’s terrific—exuberant, crude, and affecting.
The show, directed by Vicky Featherstone, follows six schoolgirls as they travel from their Scottish seaside village to Edinburgh for a choir competition. Sister Condron—rechristened “Sister Condom,” of course—has said they’re representing God himself. But the kilt-clad teens have something else in mind: “Let’s get go fucking mental!” they holler, after downing their McDonald’s milkshakes. Which means the tartan must go (though the scrunchies stay, because this is the late ‘90s), replaced by leopard print and lace. And the boozing starts in the back of the bus, followed by flaming sambuca shots and magic-mushroom homebrew.
Hall, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Billy Elliot, lets it play out as a gig rather than as a sung-through musical. Empty beer bottles and fast food cups crowd the tables at the sides of the stage, dirt smudges the colorful checkerboard floor, and bits of neon paper and tape muck up the rear wall, where a Virgin Mary statue surveys the scene. That collision of the smutty and the spiritual suits Martin Lowe’s musical arrangement. Backed by a three-piece, all-female band, it’s a glorious mix of Bartók and Bach, jumbled with a lot of Electric Light Orchestra and some heartbreakingly tender Bob Marley. It might seem an incongruously sloppy mix, but the musical range mirrors the volatility of adolescence—a swerving soundtrack is the only appropriate accompaniment for the crazy slurry that is teenage emotion.
Because my oh my, does Our Ladies cover some serious emotional ground. Maybe a little too much—the storytelling straggles on a few occasions. Each of the six girls has her own wrenching tale, often recounted in direct address to the audience: a pub-table confessional. Orla (Melissa Allan) has just been treated for cancer. Manda (Kirsty MacLaren), whose mum has left and whose dad is on the dole, spoons powdered milk into the bath to feel like Cleopatra. Chell (Caroline Deyga) has experienced far too much death in her short life. Kylah (Francis Mayli McCann) has grand musical aspirations. Popular girl Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) harbors a big secret. And teacher’s pet Kay (Karen Fishwick) comes from more money than the rest of the lot, but her university plans face a major hitch.
The ensemble is unimpeachable: boundlessly energetic, all with an impressive knack for physical comedy. They share all the bit parts, too, effortlessly transforming into pregnant classmates or skeevy older men with bad pickup lines. Just as adolescence is about the push-and-pull between individuality and loyalty to a group, each performer has her distinct power, yet they’ve also got tremendous force as a unit.
Yes, the gang makes some poor decisions on their Edinburgh jolly. But the show doesn’t patronize or judge—it demands we take these girls seriously. They're fighting against circumstance: as they remind us, their best bet at home is to find a submariner at the Mantrap nightclub. On the cusp of adulthood, they’re scrabbling to define themselves, and they insist on telling their own stories, on their own terms—no one else dare grab that mic.