Review: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, National Theatre ‘Tremendous’

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It really is a good feeling when you get to enjoy a piece of theatre that’s fresh, funny, and puts the experiences of girls front and centre. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is all of this. But it’s also bitingly relevant, unafraid in its examination of the emerging sexuality in young girls, and unapologetic in its depiction of our culture and our society.

This play is adapted from Alan Warner’s award-winning novel, The Sopranos, and follows six 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirls from Oban, a small town in Scotland, as they head to Edinburgh to represent their school in an inter-school choir competition.

Their voices may be angelic but these girls are anything but. In fact, they have absolutely zero interest in the choir competition and readily admit they’re on this trip for kicks. “Fuck the singing, we’re just gonna go mental.” Their language is saturated with obscenities, they’re obsessed with sex, and their thirst to try everything that life has to offer seems insatiable.

And so we embark on a heady 24 hours that sees these girls dump the school uniform for short skirts and fishnets, load up on alcohol and drugs, smuggle themselves into clubs they’re too young to walk into, get out of their depth with pimps and sex workers, and develop a taste for shots and lime.

l-r Frances Mayli McCann (Kylah), Dawn Sievewright (Fionnula), Caroline Deyga (Chell), Kirsty MacLaren (Manda), Karen Fishwick (Kay), Melissa Allan (Orla). Photo by Manuel Harlan

But of course this is no superficial story. Some of the girls get to experience the disappointment of losing their virginity, others wonder whether it’s even men they want to be with. Some want to face up to their own mortality; others want to numb themselves to life’s inevitable disappointment.

It’s a rites of passage story, yes, but this is beautiful stuff and there’s originality in the approach to this subject matter. It’s damn funny and the energy this young cast of six whip up is impressive. Not only do they create six distinct voices of their own, but they also play all the supporting characters effortlessly, whether they are the dribbling male lechers that crave these girls, or the nuns desperately trying to chaperone them.

And all this in a fast-moving production that includes its own live band, with a musical score that manages to effortlessly fuse Handel with Bob Marley.

It’s heady, intoxicating, and you are completely swept up by the girls, their spirit, and their individual stories. But what is also captured is the clash of worlds – the one the girls create amongst themselves and in their heads, where nothing is ever harder than it seems, and the real world itself, where ease and fair chances are utterly absent.

(Left-Right) Dawn Sievewright (Fionnula), Frances Mayli McCann (Kylah), Kirsty MacLaren (Manda), Melissa Allan (Orla), Karen Fishwick (Kay). Photo Manuel Harlan

An obvious parallel would be with Alan Bennett’s masterclass, The History Boys, in that both explore the diverse experience of a small group of school kids as they take tentative steps towards adulthood. But, tonally, this has more in common with that icon of Scottish culture, Trainspotting, what with its language, infusion of drugs and alcohol, as well as the impact of class divides.

But unlike either of these, this is female-focused. Here, we have young girls already counting the number of teenage pregnancies at their school whilst also tacitly acknowledging that this could well be their future; it’s young girls engaging in casual sex by way of ‘thank you’ for a stash of drugs passed their way; and it’s young girls we accompany and whose voices we listen to as they weigh up whether they’ll ever get to break free from their hometown.

This is important to acknowledge – that for all the humour and for all the talent on show, this story has young women as the clumsy instigators and architects of their own lives, valiantly trying to make themselves heard in a society and a world which is not inclined to listen.

If I were being 100% honest, I’d admit that this show does have a long tail. It seems to hang around long after the climax to its story in an attempt to wrap up each and every loose strand as neatly as possible. Probably not entirely necessary and, as a result, the play does come close to outstaying its welcome a bit.

But this a small gripe. It’s one hell of an ask for this production to sustain such energy, such wit and such brilliance for almost two hours. But the blend of some terrific writing courtesy of Alan Warner and Lee Hall, ace directorial touches from Vicky Featherstone, and six impressive performances from the immensely talented young cast is a winning one. I loved this. It touched my head and my heart. Tremendous.

National Theatre, London to October 1, 2016

All photos by Manuel Harlan.

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