National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre co-production
Adapted by Lee Hall from the novel The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Designed by Chloe Lamford
Music sourced, arranged and produced by-Martin Lowe
Choreographer- Imogen Knight
The Dorfmann Theatre, The National Theatre, London
Monday 5th September 2016, Evening
Melissa Allan – Orla
Caroline Dreyga – Chell
Karen Fishwick- Kay
Kirsty MacLaren – Manda
Frances Mayli McCann – Kylah
Dawn Sievewright – Fionnula
Amy Shackcloth – Band leader, keyboard
Emily Linden – guitar, bass guitar
Becky Brass – percussion
I don’t get into city centres at midnight on a Friday or Saturday very often. They were rough enough when I was seventeen or eighteen, but now they’re the aftermath of armageddon. I lead a sheltered life, but after various concerts I have found myself walking through late night Saturdays. In Exeter, every other shop doorway seemed to have a boy … or girl … pissing or puking. In Norwich we foolishly booked a hotel by the river and walked past the street of clubs, and they had a line of buses converted for medical resuscitation, enough police to quell a riot, and bouncers checking ID at the door of Tesco Express 24 hour. We’d thought to buy half a bottle of cold white wine to take back to the hotel, but after seeing the effects of cheap alcohol on the kids all around us, decided to have a cup of tea instead. Bournemouth, which attracts mass hen and stag parties, looks worse than either. The new element compared to my youth is girls, completely pissed, kissing the pavement, i.e. puking, thonged bums in the air.
The opening song: Mendelssohn
This is the world we’re entering here. Six girls, last year at school, on a choir competition trip from Oban to Edinburgh. The play opens with sweet unaccompanied choral singing in school uniforms, gentle six part singing of Lift Thine Eyes by Mendelssohn lulling you into a warm, peaceful feeling going into Enchanting Song by Bartok … then mayhem erupts. They are going to get bladdered and blasted and ‘go mental’.
But then they erupt into rock …
They board the bus to Edinburgh with cocktails of spirits concealed in soft drink bottles. They want to get disqualified from the choir contest so they can get home to Oban’s dire nightclub, The Mantrap, which will be full of submariners desperately horny after months at sea. They change out of their school uniforms, which get stolen by a lowlife (with a thing about school uniforms).
Girls going mental
The bravado boasting and sex talk confirms every male suspicion (or fear) of what women talk about in toilets. Given the detail discussions of fellatio, I assume “Succour” in the title is wordplay.
The positives are in all the reviews. It wowed the Edinburgh Festival in 2015, and after a tour of Scotland, and a toe dipped in the English waters at Newcastle and the Brighton Festival, comes to the National Theatre in London, where it’s packing in the audiences. It is raw, vibrant, energetic, vital, full of movement, with powerful ensemble interaction. The most fascinating part was Orla’s long monologue, straight to audience. She has had cancer, and describes a sexual encounter with a Scandinavian male in the terminal stages in hospital. It manages to combine deep poignancy, absolute crudity and be shockingly funny at the same time. Great writing and great delivery from Melissa Allen as Orla.
Throughout their evening adventures in Edinburgh (or “the capital” as it’s always called) after losing their school uniforms, one or other slips into the role of other characters they encounter, some male. That was slightly confusing at times, as they changed voice and body posture, and often used microphones to effect this, but a hat or prop or two would have helped. There are memorable lines … their school was known as the Virgin Megastore … a great line, though already a few years out of date, as was Kylah’s aim to get a job on the music counter in Woolworths. They left me wondering whether it’s taking place “now” or a few years back.
L to R: Chell (Caroline Deyga), Kay (Karen Fishwick), Kylah (Frances Mayli McCann), Orla(Melissa Allen), Manda (Kirsty McLaren), Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright)
The cast were all great, though it was hard to catch their character names. They’re all unknowns to the London stage too. Dawn Sievewright as Fionnula was the tough natural leader of the gang (and I predict Dawn will go far.) Kay (Karen Fishwick) is the nice, quiet, well-mannered middle class girl who’s going to university, but it turns out she’s managed to get pregnant, while her coarser classmates have just been talking about it. Kylah (Frances Mayli McCann) used to be in a band. Chell (Caroline Deyga) is the big girl, full of mouth and advice. Manda (Kirsty McLaren) is thin and slight (and also has a “boyfriend with budgie in cage” role).
As a musical, the rock numbers sound terrific, in spite of having only a small three piece (and all female) band. The six voices are what does it, and Electric Light Orchestra is the theme throughout the rock sections. The programme says this was Martin Lowe’s idea, and they would have learned them from Kylah’s old band, which covered her dad’s 70s records. Martin Lowe was also in charge of music for Once, The War Horse, Les Miserables and Mamma Mia!
There are full, strong renditions of Mr Blue Skies, Sweet Talkin’ Woman and Don’t Bring Me Down. There are bits of Long Black Road, Shine A Little Love and Wild West Hero. I’d say on sheer running time, ELO leader and composer Jeff Lynne deserves a credit along with Lee Hall and Martin Lowe on the fliers. I’m writing this review with ELO’s “Best of …” CD playing and I appreciate even more how the arrangements so simplified the musical backing, while expanding the vocal range with six female voices. My first reaction would have been to have bass guitar as well as guitar (Emily Linden was switching between the two) and to give the drummer a full kit BUT somehow that stripped down version worked better.
The musical highlight is the closing song though. A soft, unaccompanied version of No Woman No Cry with no accompaniment, and no reggae either. It becomes a gentle folk lullaby. The programme lists the songs and composers, which musicals do, but plays so often don’t. However, they totally miss No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley, which should be #14, but as a black singer, I expect his ghost is used to it.
These are teenagers, exactly at the time of life when regional / peer group identity is strongest. Kids in this age group often compete to sound the most “local.” So they should sound pretty strong in accent. Only the Sassenachs would say “a Scottish accent” ignoring the wide range from Western Isles to the prim of Miss Jean Brodie to broad Glaswegian, but I’m a Sassenach, so I will. I would assume someone with a strong Glasgow accent might moderate it for comprehensibility in a conversation in English in a Gaelic speaking area for example. Accents are an issue. It felt rather like seeing an unfamiliar Elizabethan or Shakespeare play, where you … or rather I … might have trouble with a number of the lines … though that would be vocabulary and grammar, not accent. We missed a lot of lines because they were fast and strongly accented. There were some lines where 10% of the audience fell about laughing, which we just didn’t catch at all … I’m assuming those who laughed were Scottish or more familiar with Scottish accents (or had read the script on sale at the National). It wasn’t like the issue I’ve had with one or two actors in a play with strong accents, because as everyone had the same accent here, your ear does adjust quite quickly, but even so I missed a lot.
It’s an issue I’ve discussed before, and I’ll quote the same example. I’ve seen David Tennant and James McAvoy on stage and on film, and both have a range from straight RP to broad Scottish with several stages in between. I saw both on chat shows around the time of the independence referendum, and both set the dial at the strong end of the spectrum. That was a political statement. I don’t think it was here, but from call centres in Scotland to major actors, there is noticeably less moderation of accent for mutual understanding than there used to be. I would say that actors should be able to vary the strength of accent, and this London run would benefit from taking the dial down 20%. I can do my native Dorset accent anywhere from mild West country burr to incomprehensible rural of a century ago. This play is not as difficult as Trainspotting. However, as the actors will know, for interaction in London, where most people in service situations are non-British, they will find themselves moderating. I don’t think a slight change in pace combined with slight moderation of accent would hamper its authenticity for a London audience.
It’s very funny indeed. The language is as crude as any play I’ve ever seen too. The singing, dancing, moving is brilliant. In a way I thought of Little Shop of Horrors, which every time I’ve seen it, has girls of varied size and shape dancing well. It’s a long way from the days when I did lights and professional dancers were a uniform and stereotypical size and shape, and so it’s another plus. I can see why reviews go for four stars. I’m going to take one off for comprehensibility though.