Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Anybody looking for a West End musical involving singing and dancing schoolchildren has a third choice supplementing those of Matilda and School of Rock. But even with a script by Lee Hall, the book writer of Billy Elliot, any parents choosing to take the children to see Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour should, perhaps, reconsider.

For although this story of an Oban convent school choir attending an annual competition possesses a warmly fulfilling tale of female empowerment, the exploits and language along the way are enough to make even the prefects at St. Trinian’s blush. This tale of sex and drugs and ELO is more than just a few schoolkids being a little bit naughty.

The story is presented as the cast of six girls narrating their own story as they relive the tale of their attempts to get wasted and laid in Edinburgh, hoping that they get eliminated in the early rounds of the following day’s competition so they can return home to the local nightclub, ready to seduce the sailors from a submarine berthed at the local docks.

For these girls, sex is both the driver of all their bad decisions, and also something of which they are glib once it has happened.

In this way, Hall presents female teenage life in colours more usually ascribed to boys. The sextet of girls, taken from Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos, burst onto the stage as fully-formed characters, their brash, four-letter-word fuelled vocabulary in sharp contrast to the frankly beautiful a cappella performances of Mendelssohn’s ‘Lift Thine Eyes’.

As the tales of under-age drinking and voracious sexual appetites progress, each of the six young women has the opportunity to go into the deeper elements of their own story. And truth be told, some of the story elements begin to get a little repetitive, especially nearer the end of the interval-free 95-minute show.

Thankfully, there are plenty of musical numbers to break up the piece, performed either a cappella or accompanied by a three-piece onstage band.

Classical choral pieces from Handel, Bach and Vaughan Williams sit alongside the works of Jeff Lynne, the latter’s multi-layered vocals for Electric Light Orchestra being the perfect material to adapt for this sextet of female voices.

Director Vicky Featherstone keeps the pace afloat even through Hall’s more lumpen pieces. She is abetted by six young actors who present engaging portraits of girls with little to no prospect of escaping their future in Oban, most notably Dawn Sievewright as the band’s de factor leader Fionnula and Isis Hainsworth’s Orla, a cancer survivor who feels that, because of her illness, she has missed out on the sexual awakening that all her friends have, or at least claim to have, had.

And while all six actors portray the other characters the girls of the choir encounter during their various rites of passage, Karen Fishwick displays a great range of characterisations that help make her co-stars’ stories all the more illuminating.

While the coarseness present in Hall’s storytelling may weary after a while, what does not is the heart visible within the six girls.

Coupled with some absolutely stunning vocal performances, what emerges is a tale of solidarity amongst friends that may not be suitable for children, but speaks to those adults who recognise the struggle to grow up.