- OnStage Connecticut Critic
A group of uniform-wearing private school girls grab microphone stands and rock out to the strains of radio-friendly rock. Afterwards, they shed their good-girl image and have frank discussions of sex, abortions, homosexuality and finding themselves in the murky waters that are their post-school future.
I know what you’re thinking but no, this isn’t “Spring Awakening” I’m talking about. These girls speak in a thick brogue and are decidedly of the 21st century. They drink booze hidden in soda bottles, smoke cheap cigarettes and speak in a rapid-fire mix of slang, sarcasm and four-letter words. The proceeding century has done a lot where personal freedom is concerned – if this were “Spring Awakening” the girls would probably be dead by the final curtain rather than just massively hung over. But still, this isn’t exactly the Purple Summer Wendla and her friends were dreaming of. It seems the passage of time does nothing to hamper the adolescent search for a grown-up identity, honest sexuality and the fierce need to belong.
“Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” is a fiery Scottish import, which plays the Yale Reparatory Theater June 10-25 as part of New Haven’s International Festival of Arts And Ideas. Lee Hall’s script (adapted from an Alan Warner novel) is a hodge-podge of styles – it’s somewhere between musical and straight play, straightforward narrative and episodic collection of sketches – and that creative, throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what sticks attitude is both the show’s greatest asset and most frustrating attribute. When “Ladies” works, it works like gangbusters and yet the show takes a few too many meandering detours along the way.
When we first meet the rebellious girls of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour they are leaving their catholic school to go on a bus ride into the city for an important choir contest. But before show time, they decide to go on a massive pub crawl, the likes of which would make the “Hangover” guys jealous. Among them is tough Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright), aspiring rock singer Kylah (Frances Mayli McCann, Sarah Hyland’s Scottish doppelganger) and cancer survivor Orla (Joanne McGuinness), who claims the silver lining of chemotherapy was losing her pubic hair. There’s also nerdy Kay (Karen Fishwick), feisty Manda (Kirsty MacLaren) and bawdy Chell (Caroline Deyga), who takes the Rebel Wilson role of insecure loudmouth. There is not a single weak link in this highly talented, young cast, with McCann and MacLaren standing out for their strong, versatile rock voices and high energy. Given such a loose plot and the fact that the cast is also required to play dozens of other characters (including bouncers, nuns and no shortage of desperate, horny creeps), the cast has a lot to carry and they succeed with flying colors.
Working on Chloe Lamford’s simple, rundown bar set and aided by Lizzie Powell’s effective rock concert lighting, director Vicky Featherstone smartly only uses set redressing to transform the stage into over a dozen locations. Her stellar staging transformed what might have been a static story into a very entertaining and inventive piece of theater. The on stage, three person pit sounded appropriately like a second-tier high school garage band and added lots of energy and grunge to the proceedings. In fact, the best moments of “Ladies” are when those three pieces – the cast, staging and band – come together in the musical numbers, which range from classical choir pieces to Bob Marley to lots of Electric Light Orchestra.
In the non-musical scenes, though, the show’s pervasive messiness begins to be a problem. Scenes spill into each other randomly. Without costume changes or much context, the characters all begin to bleed into each other. None of this is helped by the actresses’ thick Scottish accent and flagrant use of slang, which can be sometimes difficult to decipher, especially in the first 15 minutes or so. And while I appreciate the message of looking beyond stereotypes and taking charge of your own destiny, writer Hall goes a bit too out of his way to give each character a clean and complete story arch. Some work – like the confession that one girl is mostly a virgin, except for a disastrous tryst on an oncology ward – but others feel tacked on or uninspired.
But, perhaps, all of this is par for the course with a play like “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.” It takes place entirety during one 12-hour booze-filled bacchanalia and like those kinds of wild nights “Ladies” is wildly uneven and eventually tiresome. But there’s an irresistible charm to these characters and a kind of profane poetry to their dialogue which is both starkly melancholy and bitingly, cringe-inducingly hilarious, often in the same sentence. Sitting down to write this review a day later, there are whole sections of the schoolgirls’ adventures that are foggy in my memory and the overall point to the endeavor feels just out of reach, but I do remember getting carried away by the casts’ bountiful energy and laughing a whole lot. Yeah, that sounds right to me.