When I was around the age of the six young women in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a teacher told me that, to get on in the world, I’d have to stop swearing. Young ladies don’t swear, you see. Fuck that, thought 17-year-old me and went to work in newspapers, the sweariest of all professions. Fuck, yeah.
I might have managed to reach adulthood without discovering the delights (?) of magic mushroom lager, but Our Ladies fires a bullseye on my authenticity sweet spot. And not just as a nostalgic tour de force (I was around these girls’ age at around the time it’s set), although Kay’s skirt-trainers-adidas top outfit nearly had me weeping tears of good-times joy, but because everything about it feels deeply real. Cue me wistfully remembering the chopsy kids mooning at passing coaches on the way back from school outings; the deputy head girl nearly barred from TJs Disco for moshing too aggressively to Pearl Jam; the disguising of (slight) squiffiness in class after a lunchtime cider-and-black in the local in our uniform, the barman occasionally requesting a peck on the cheek for his trouble. (Schadenfreude, kids, it’s now a KFC.) Go mental.
Our Ladies equals our lives. This NTS production of Alan Warner’s 1997 novel The Sopranos, adapted by Lee Hall and directed with an ebullient love of life and of, well, girls by Vicky Featherstone caused a stir in Edinburgh last year and it’s easy to see why. Never has such joy in being a female filled the stage. Just girls being girls, with all the ordinary extraordinary of their messy contradictions. It’s raucous, funny, wild, sad, silly and sexy. Fuck, yeah.
These convent school girls on a wild afternoon out in the big city from their Oban outpost of existence are portrayed as outrageous, exaggerated, wild. They swear, they drink, they screw. But the real joy lies in their resistance of stereotype. They laugh, cry, want, fear. They are all over the place. Each girl has issues to tackle but their unique personality shines through the mayhem: nothing feels reductive. Everything from Chell’s father issues – at times taken casually, at others as crushingly cruel – to ‘posh’ Kay’s drunk sexual exploits resulting in unwanted pregnancy is knitted into a complex fibre that makes a whole, ridiculous, contrary human being.
And, then, there’s its refusal to be poverty porn – an epithet it’s been easy to throw at several recent, much-admired but difficult to stomach theatrical offerings. The material facts of their existence bubble away in the background but it’s just part of who they are, who they might be. (Although Phony Tony stalks their future, waiting to reduce everything they are to their economic activity in order to ‘save’ them.)
In fact, all the usually annoying stuff that defines how women are characterised is allowed to just bubble away in the background. Men can be mucky gits? Yes. A big deal? Not really. Catholic guilt? Shame? The ‘Virgin Megastore’ is one big refusal of sexual guilt. No one thing is going to define them.
Much of this works due to some masterstroke casting. Orla (Melissa Allan), Chell (Caroline Deyga), Kay (Karen Fishwick), Manda (Kirsty MacLaren), Kylah (Frances Mayli McCann) and Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) form a gang/choir that’s beautiful as a whole, and spectacular as a sum of its parts. There are no weak links. Each character seems rooted, real, weird and, in their own ways, strong, drawing their brilliance from the clarity and commitment of the cast’s performances. It’s physical, energetic, vital and – what girls are still too rarely allowed to be – confident.
The love for these characters and their contradictions flows through every element of the show, from the girls’ snapping between vulnerability and confidence, from sexual predators and the sexually exploited, to the joyful way they blast out ELO’s Mr Blue Sky as well as sweetly realise Mendelssohn and Bartok.
They take everything – love, sex, death – in their stride and sup another Hooch as they struggle under the weight of their fast-arriving futures in which nothing will ever be black-and-white.
And then there’s the end. A refusal to be sorry wraps around the show’s essential optimism as the young women choose to celebrate the mess they’ve made with a touching rendition of Bob Marley’s Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.
You don’t need to read hundreds of pages of Paradise Lost to know being an angel is shit anyway.