Lee Hall and Vicky Featherstone on bringing riotous schoolgirls to the stage

Published in The Independent on Sunday on August 9, 2015

Playwright Lee Hall is best known for Billy Elliot, the inspirational, heart-warming film and musical about a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer and who overcomes the odds to achieve his dream. Now, Hall has turned his attention to the story of a Scottish Catholic schoolgirl choir, travelling to Edinburgh to compete in a singing competition. Hankies at the ready for the big emotional numbers, right?

Er, more like hankies ready to mop up the booze and bodily fluids flying round the stage… Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which opens at the Traverse Theatre during Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival this month, is based on Alan Warner’s 1997 novel, The Sopranos, and is set to be a riot.

Whether it’s drinking 18 tequilas and falling off a bar stool, being propositioned by man standing on his head with an erection, or burning down a bouncer’s house with fireworks, these teenagers get into all sorts of scrapes in their quest to lose the singing competition. That’s right – their aim is to lose. Forget your X Factor or Glee-style narratives – all this underage lot wants is to get back to their small town’s club for the last dance (and chance of a shag).

Still, the contrast between voice-of-an-angel Catholic schoolgirls and their smoking, swearing, sex-hungry behaviour makes The Sopranos particularly ripe for reinvention. And they’ve assembled quite a team, with Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court, returning to the National Theatre of Scotland (which she helped found in 2004) to direct. The show will go on a no-doubt hellraising tour of Scotland and to Newcastle after the Fringe … then, given the pedigree involved, who knows where?

Hall’s an exciting choice of adaptor, but anyone expecting a straight-forward musical might be in for a shock. Both Hall and Featherstone love the book for its outrageousness, and knew that to do justice to the unabashed, unapologetic force of Warner’s words, it wouldn’t work to simply stage the girls’ misdemeanours in chronological order, with songs.

Most importantly, they did not want the girls to be objectified, whether judged or leered at. “There is a voyeuristic version of this play, and we never wanted it to be voyeuristic at all,” says Featherstone. “They get dressed up in these mad outfits, and they’re very sexual, and sometimes they’re in control of that and sometimes they’re not…” If they were going to do Our Ladies, our ladies would have to be in charge.

“The main conceit is that it should be the girls telling the story, it should be owned by them,” says Hall, who explains it will be more like a gig than a musical, with the girls forming a band (with accompaniment from three young female musicians). “One of the reasons for doing it was to upturn that ‘Catholic school girls in trouble’ cliché … it’s the anti-St Trinian’s!”

So, it is the six friends, addressing the audience directly, who recount their day in Edinburgh, as well as their more emotional backstories. Dead parents, serious illness, identity crises and class issues lurk in the considerable shadows of Warner’s tale, underscored by freewheeling wit and wickedness – you might just need to dab away the odd tear after all.

This “self-presentational” style of theatre also allows the cast to let rip musically, singing a mixture of traditional choral which, having heard the girls in rehearsal, promises to be bone-achingly beautiful, and pop hits, to guide us through the characters’ emotional journeys. “It’s not a musical, but the music does an awful lot of work,” says Hall.

However, curiously for a show set in the mid-Nineties, they’re opting for a Seventies soundtrack; rather than covering, say, The Spice Girls, the girls will warble, er, ELO. “We’re trying to make it universal, so to pick something iconic from a different time seemed – weirdly – to open it up,” Hall explains.

The other key thing about having the girls tell their own story is that the six young actresses also play every other character they encounter – which, in Warner’s sharp-eyed telling, are largely pervy, pathetic men.

“It’s actually quite shocking, what they go through and the men that they meet,” says Featherstone. “If you put that dynamic onstage girls will always be weak, and we didn’t want the women to have any weakness at all: it’s about their empowerment. So, it became clear that they had to play the men as well. That’s been really liberating – it’s making me think a lot about who has the power onstage.”

Hall acknowledges that he’s written “a lot of plays with mostly men”; this was an excellent chance to redress the balance. “I was really interested to see what it’s like to be a young woman with all of that, the male gaze, from inside-out – it’s something we really don’t see very much on stage.”

This is true, and not just in the theatre. More widely in society, we often seem scared of the realities of young women’s experience, notably their sexuality, either packaging it up as something to be slathered over and objectified, or criticising and condemning it (or often, both simultaneously). The Sopranos may be set in the mid-Nineties, but its subjects – binge drinking, teenage pregnancy, “unsuitable” clothing et al – still push all sorts of moral panic buttons today.

Hall and Featherstone see the book as a forceful corrective to that pervasive public attitude of condescension and containment. And while their show may conceivably upset moralising red-top newspapers and have parents breaking out in a cold sweat, they refuse to tone down or apologise for the girls’ behaviour. These moments of reckless abandon aren’t an embarrassing blot on your reputation, Hall argues, but a rite-of-passage we should all have.

“The bit that I recognised from growing up in Newcastle was the girls’ absolute want – and need – to do this,” says Hall. “The idea is that they’re going to go fucking mental, and that going fucking mental is a great thing. That’s so reviled by a lot of stuck-up people, but it’s the most human thing. The girls come through it, battered and bruised, but we love them because of their spirit and attitude.”

The cast are in their early twenties, but look younger, and are certainly near enough to school days for the show to have the tang of authenticity. When I ask in rehearsals if they find their characters recognisable, there’s a long pause, a little “yeah”… and peals of laughter all round.

“I’m in the book!” declares Dawn Sievewright. “This is exactly what I used to do on my weekends, on my nights out!”

The cast agree that it’s rare to see such behaviour on stage or screen without judgement or glamorisation. “It’s good because it isn’t trying to glorify it in any way, it’s just basically saying ‘this is how we are’. It’s not like ‘oh, now we’re going to shock you’,” argues Kirsty MacLaren.

[“But] it’s not rose-tinted, it’s not scared to be a little bit outrageous,” says Caroline Deyga. “It’s all the things you pretend you weren’t as a teenager but you actually were.”

“I think we’ve all got a story in there that we might connect closely with – and the audience will as well,” concludes Sievewright with a naughty twinkle. In fact, never mind fireworks – it looks like these young ladies won’t need any help to set the Fringe on fire.

‘Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour’ is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 18 to 30 Aug, and on tour until 24 Oct; nationaltheatrescotland.com

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