SONG, SEX, sambuca, and Scottish choirgirls running amok, are among the lively ingredients of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, the National Theatre of Scotland’s boisterous and brilliant show at this year’s Galway International Arts Festival.
The play is adapted from Alan Warner's terrific 1998 novel, The Sopranos, about six girls on the cusp of change, when love, lust, pregnancy, and death all spiral out of control in a single day. Funny, sad, and raucously rude, this is a blisteringly funny musical play about losing your virginity and finding yourself.
The show premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it won a Scotsman Fringe First Award, a Herald Angel Award, and a Stage Ensemble Award and was hailed by The Scotsman as "a mighty piece of popular theatre, full of show-stopping musical moments delivered to perfection".
The creative team behind the production includes director Vicky Featherstone, Billy Elliot author, Lee Hall, and music arranger and supervisor Martin Lowe (Once ). Vicky is the artistic director of the Royal Court in London and was previously artistic director of Paines Plough (1997-2005 ) and the founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland (2005-2012 ).
Ahead of NTS’s visit to Galway she talked with me about Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, commencing with her description of author Alan Warner’s qualities as a writer; “Alan is part of that 1990’s wave of extraordinary novelists that came out of Scotland; Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, Duncan McLean, etc.
"He mainly writes female characters and he has an extraordinary insight into female psychology. He is a beautiful wordsmith as well, at times it’s almost like poetry. He loves playing with language as well, we wrote down something like 60 different words he used just to describe the way that the girls in The Sopranos laugh. The other thing is that there is a real sense of longing in his writing and he never judges his characters, there’s a longing for the beauty of what their life is; he’s brilliant.”
'These are girls that we’d normally demonise as they are working class'
Vicky reveals that both herself and scriptwriter Lee Hall were avid fans of Warner’s novel before they ever teamed up to put it on stage; “Both Lee and I separately had thought this would be a great book to dramatise, and so did Neil Murray who was executive director at the NTS. The book feels really dramatic, you have this group of girls going to a choir competition so there are songs in it – Alan often writes a lot of music into his novels. Lee and I had known each other for years but met up at an awards ceremony and that was when he told me he really wanted to adapt the novel so I set about trying to get the rights.”
I ask Vicky how, once she had acquired the rights, they set about bringing the book from page to stage; “Lee and I went on a road trip to Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, which is where the book is set,” she replied. “Alan sent us an email describing where all the places in the book are, so we went on a tour around them together. Then we stayed in Oban that night and discussed what we thought the form of the play should take.
"There are hundreds of characters in the book, a lot of men that they meet on their journey. We discussed what would be the best way to dramatise it all. The thing we came up with that night was the idea of a gig where they are doing songs and storytelling, it is the story of this amazing day where they go to the choir competition in Edinburgh and then come back to Oban. The adaptation is very faithful to the book because we both love it so much. There are a few things that we have changed; you always lose something when you move a novel onto the stage because you can’t have so much narrative detail but we gained other things as well.”
Rowdy and rambunctious, the girls in the play might seem like heedless tearaways but there is more to them than that, as Vicky points out; “These are girls that we’d normally demonise,” she admits. “They are working class, we see them getting drunk, being difficult and wild, but the story is really about them discovering what their future is going to be.
"They all change in some way personally due to what they experience during the day. The story feels to me like that last day of mad abandon before you have to face adulthood when you’re fearless and nothing can stop you. That’s really what it’s about. By the end of it you realise that that’s naïve and life isn’t like that, and they have to face up to what their future is going to bring.”
'One of the things that is so exciting is these young women onstage owning this story'
Music plays a big part in the production and the sound-track comprises an intriguing mix of classical pieces by the likes of Handel, Bach and Bartok along with a selection of hits by the Electric Light Orchestra. “Some of the songs are mentioned in the book but a lot of them are ones that Lee and Martin, our musical director, suggested,” Vicky explains.
“The classical ones are there because the girls are from a Catholic school choir so those are the ones they are singing. Then you have one of the characters, Kyla, who wants to be in a band and the ELO songs are taken from her dad’s record collection. When we found ELO first, we did a workshop with ‘Wild West Hero’ and it just fitted so well that we decided to go into their back catalogue. They are such extraordinary songs and they fit brilliantly.”
With the characters all being teenage choirgirls, the show clearly had to cast young and emergent actresses, Vicky recalls the talent-trawl and how much the cast brought to the production; “When we first started talking about doing the show we wondered where we would find the actresses who could do all this –sing classical songs, pop songs, act, dance, tell a story. There is one actress I had already worked with called Dawn Seabright who is amazing and I knew she had the range to be able to do it, and she plays Fionnuala.
"We then went on a quite a long workshop and audition process and we found six of the most brilliant actresses who are all still in it, and two understudies who are also fantastic. We’re so proud of it, the cast were really part of discovering how the characters would be. We had a draft of the script when we went into rehearsals but it needed a lot of work as we went through rehearsal and they really, really, influenced what the piece ended up as, they have real ownership over it. That is one of the things that is so exciting about watching it, you get these young women onstage owning this story. I feel so proud of what the girls do so I hope as many people as possible come and see it.”
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is at the Town Hall Theatre from Tuesday July 19 to Saturday 23 at 8pm, with 2pm matinees on Thursday 21 and Saturday 23. A post-show talk with members of the company follows the Wednesday performance. For tickets go to www.giaf.ie