Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour: Catholic girls gone inevitable

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Faced-paced story, debauchery, coming-of-age stories, and live perfomances of ELO – could you ask for anything more? Well, maybe …

This offering from the National Theatre of Scotland might be a runaway hit, but I have a feeling that their fans won’t include the Catholic Education Service of the UK. Set in writer Alan Warner’s hometown of Oban (or, more fairly, a partially fictionalised version referred to as “The Port” in the original book The Sopranos), it begins at a school with an unusually high teenage pregnancy rate. But don’t worry, God told the Pope the perfect answer: give the girls of the town a sound moral upbringing by putting them in an all-girls school where nuns teach lessons that sex is a sin and the word “boys” is not allowed, because, like, that always works, doesn’t it?

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour appeals to a lot of people in different ways, but the main audience for this play seems to be women with fond nostalgia of their youth. I’m not one of those people, because this is about as far removed from my teenage years as can be – I was more minded to sit through this debauchery with a middle-aged “harumph”. But for me, I instead got to enjoy marvelling at the extent of human stupidity – in this case, the stupidity of whoever thought this trip a choir contest was a good idea, bearing in mind it’s the first trip on their own for many of their girls. And it’s to Edinburgh, #2 city in Scotland for drinking after Glasgow, and #1 city for debauched hedonism. And to top it all off, with the contest not being until 6 in the evening, the girls are welcome to go off on their own for the day to see the city. Grief, what did they think was going to happen?

So Lee Hall’s adaptation starts with the six girls singing a choral piece, then they all smoke a cigarette, and it pretty much goes downhill from there. Much of the following story is admittedly predictable, but it couldn’t be anything but predictable, because the eight hours in Edinburgh comprise of more of less everything that everyone would expect, mostly involving ridiculous amounts of alcohol, anecdotes of past undignified antics, further ridiculous amounts of alcohol, going into a dodgy geezer’s flat, yet even more ridiculous amounts of alcohol, and finally vomiting halfway through a chorale.

Edinburgh Fringe reviews of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour:

The Times (£): ★★★★★
The Herald (£): ★★★★★
The Stage (£): ★★★★★
The Skinny: ★★★★★
All Edinburgh Theatre: ★★★★★
Edinburgh Festivals: ★★★★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★★
The Telegraph: ★★★★
The Independent: ★★★★
FringeGuru: ★★★★
BroadwayBaby: ★★★★
FringeReview: ★★★★
The List: ★★★★
FringeGuru: ★★★★
Fest: ★★★★
Edinburgh Guide: ★★★★
WhatsOnStage: ★★★★
The Guardian: ★★★

But the balance is upset by Kay. Five girls on the lash come from the deprived part of town. Kay, on the other hand, lives in an affluent home, is due to go on to university, and lives in a different world to the others – or so it seems. In actual fact, Kay has a few secrets of her own, she needs a day away from her parents for a different reason; and for all the failures of a moral Catholic education, the one thing they succeed in doing is instilling a sense of guilt in young women such as Kay. It’s things such as this where fantasy starts to unravel and real life starts to catch up with the six girls.

And yet, for all the play’s achievements, I can’t help feeling that something’s been lost from the book. We don’t get to learn that much about the six ladies as individuals. As a raucous group out on the lash, they are broadly interchangeable, as per most raucous groups out on the lash. We start to learn more about their separate stories later as the play progresses, but even these plot threads felt like they were being drowned in a story about drinking, drinking and more drinking. One of the girls, for instance, has an illness that will eventually kill her, but this is only touched upon, with most prominence to a cringe-o-matic story of a sexual encounter in hospital. The final half hour, however, is more down-to-earth, more empathetic, covers a lot of group the rest of the play only touched on. Perhaps we needed more scenes like this a litter sooner.

Despite this reservation, I have nothing to criticise about Nicky Featherstone’s production itself, with a set looking like a complete dive of a nightclub, the six actors playing dozens of parts between them, and live music dominated by ELO’s greatest hits. And you can’t really argue with a solid month-long sell-out run at co-producing Live Theatre, or more stars from the Edinburgh run than you can shake a stick at. Whilst I might not share the overwhelming enthusiasm of almost everyone else, it’s a decent play to see, and I can safely predict we’ll be hearing a lot more of this play for some time yet.

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