Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour
5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
IF THE VOICES of women – often saying what’s neither predictable nor comforting – have been a major force on this year’s Fringe, then they undoubtedly reach a hilarious, unsettling and hugely moving climax in this magnificent new show from the National Theatre of Scotland – directed by its former boss Vicky Featherstone, co-produced by Live Theatre of Newcastle, and adapted by none other than Lee Hall, the writer of Billy Elliot – that sets the 2015 Fringe alight at the Traverse this week
Based on Alan Warner’s award winning 1998 novel The Sopranos, Our Ladies tells the story of 24 hours in the lives of a choir of teenage girls from a Catholic state school in Oban, as they head to Edinburgh for a national competition. And right from the opening moments – when the six girls enter in their school uniforms, deliver an exquisite performance of Mendelssohn’s Lift Thine Eyes, and then plunge without pause into a gloriously foul-mouthed account of the current state of play in their squalid teenage sex-lives – we can see that this drama, with its near-perfect classical time-frame, is going to be played out in the space between the sheer beauty, longing, discipline and power contained in the sound these girls can create together, and the anarchic chaos of lives that range from the low-life domestic mayhem experienced daily by Chell, to the middle-class world of Kay, whose privileged exterior hides similar levels of turmoil.
There’s no easy way of summing up the sheer energy and brilliance with which Hall’s text and Vicky Featherstone’s production uses an open stage, and a series of microphones both visible and hidden, to create the soundscape of voice and words that carries the story through a completely absorbing 100 minutes. Backed by a three-piece all-female band, the show’s magnificent cast – featuring Melissa Allen as the poignantly fragile Orla, Caroline Deyga as Chell, and Karen Fishwick as Kay, with Kirsty MacLaren, Frances Mayli McCann and a wonderful Dawn Sievewright as clever, complicated Fionnuala – play not only their own characters, but every disciplinarian nun and leering bloke they encounter on their day out.
And although the story is rich in incident to the point of sensory overload, in the end this magnificent tale emerges as a hymn to that most unfashionable of forces, fertility. It cheers on the sheer physical fertility of teenage girls for whom pregnancy is such a familiar hazard it hardly amounts to a crisis, it celebrates the deeper kind of fertility implied in their huge rebellious energy and their still-boundless potential; and it unleashes the huge fertility of imagination with which Featherstone’s team come together with the cast to create a mighty piece of popular theatre, full of show-stopping musical moments delivered to perfection, and of a wisdom that suggests we should remember and cherish this kind of moment of youth, which is always fleeting, but which contains such a beautiful, bursting microcosm of everything we call life.