The National Theatre of Scotland

Holy Shite!

Review of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The featured theatrical event of this year’s Arts & Ideas is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre, New Castle. Lee Hall, who turned Billy Elliott into a successful musical, adapts Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos—about a group of Scots Catholic school girls run amok in the capitol—for the stage as Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, directed by Vicky Featherstone, veteran director of many NTS productions.

Lewd, crude, and rude, Our Ladies follows the exploits of six teen girls as they let loose within the confines of their day and age. Which is to say, in the words of Pulp’s song “Common People,” “You can dance, and drink, and screw / Because there’s nothing else to do.” The show energetically, and relentlessly, showcases the time of life when that was enough. To say, as the Pulp song does outright, that such are the only opportunities for fun and self-expression among the “common people,” or working class, as all these ladies are (only one, Kay, is college-bound), is to recognize the subtext to these high spirits. They’ve got to get their rocks off young because it’s all downhill from here.

l to r.: Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Joanne McGuiness, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Karen Fishwick (photo: Manuel Harlan)

l to r.: Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Joanne McGuiness, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Karen Fishwick (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The salty language, slang, and dense Scots accents of these gurls (think Maggie’s Smith’s pronunciation in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie whilst touting the crème de la crème) keeps it all very ribald and just comprehensible enough. Don’t worry, when some narrative business is important, such as Orla (Joan McGuiness)’s account of how she tries to shag a fellow patient in a hospital with unfortunate results, you’ll follow it just fine. Orla has cancer and so her efforts to “dew et” while still able are understandable, though trying to get off a guy with a urine bag is not only a bit daft, it’s pathetic. And that’s the tone of much of the show—its hi-jinx are high times with an undertone of pathos.

The best dramatic situation along those lines comes from Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) deciding she might like girls better than boys and trying out her newfound emotions on Kay (Karen Fishwick), who’s been in bed with both at the same time. Efforts to suggest the bittersweetness of the girls’ tender age helps give some depth to a show which otherwise might simply seem the Scots female version of bro-mance films of frat boys trying to do the dirty. And it does seem like that often enough.

And there’s music too, played live onstage with conviction, though if the notion of teens rocking out to ELO tunes seems a bit contradictory, you’re not alone. Still, Jeff Lynne provides some decent songs like “Long Black Road,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” (a very spirited performance), and “Wild West Hero” (used very effectively). Then there are the hits from the classical canon that the girls sing with lovely, angelic voices, making clear why the nuns who teach them might be fooled into thinking they can be trusted on their own. Some—like Handel’s “My Heart is Inditing” and Williams’ “O Taste and See”—get a nice little spin when heard from the girls’ perspective.

l to r: Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Karen Fishwick, Joanne McGuiness (photo: Manuel Harlan)

l to r: Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Karen Fishwick, Joanne McGuiness (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The music adds distraction but it also draws out the show’s length, which begins to feel interminable. By the time the girls are writhing about, getting their trip on with Magic Mushroom Lager, I had hopes their odyssey was near its end, but they still have to get back to Oban in time for that last dance at the Mantrap. You might be feeling up to a pub-crawl of your own by that point.

As Kay, Karen Fishwick is a cut above—she can do querulous old man, earnest young boy, and melancholy dude, and gives Kay nuances of conflict. Some of the others, when called upon to enact males, seem not much different than they are as girls, which I don’t think is deliberate, though maybe. Frances Mayli McCann and Caroline Deyga are compelling musical performers with a good sense of rhythm that enlivens the musical parts. As somewhat sad Orla, McGuinness gets a touching scene with Kirsty MacLaren whose nerdy boy character is memorable. And Sievewright handles well the role of Fionnula, the girl with something other than boys on her mind.

Plotwise, the fact that girls do go boy crazy at a certain age is certainly not new, and that Catholic girls are anything but chaste is not much by way of comic contrast. Full disclosure: I was in a Catholic school among Catholic schoolgirls up to age 13 and I remember many as far more mature than this lot. What’s more, I didn’t think, until seeing Our Ladies, that anything would make me sympathetic to the nuns overseeing teens and attempting to impose standards of conduct. Guess I’ll have to rethink that. As Eugene O’Neill says, “If you can’t be good, you can at least be careful.” Maybe our ladies will catch on before too much damage is done.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
Based on The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Adapted by Lee Hall
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Music Sourced, Arranged and Supervised by Martin Lowe

Designer: Chloe Lamford; Lighting Designer: Imogen Knight; Sound Designer: Lizzie Powell; Associate Director: Debbie Hannan; Associate Music Supervisor: Stuart Morley; Co-Casting Directors: Amy Ball, Laura Donnelly

The Band: Laura Bangay, band leader/keyboard; Becky Brass, percussion; Emily Linden, guitar

Cast: Caroline Deyga; Kirsty Findlay; Karen Fishwick; Joanne McGuiness; Kirsty MacLaren; Frances Mayli McGann; Dawn Sievewright

June 10-25, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Yale Repertory Theater

Strange Doings in the Scottish Borders

Preview of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Arts & Ideas Festival

Annie Grace, of the National Theatre of Scotland, has performed in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart more than 400 times, all over the place. The troupe and their signature play are back in New Haven this weekend to kick off the 21st annual Arts & Ideas Festival and to give New Haveners a newer taste of a play that first played here on its first world tour back in 2012.

There are two new cast members this time, filling the essential roles of Prudencia (now played by Jessica Hardwick) and her rival Colin Syme (now played by Paul McCole), and then there’s the supporting cast of three (Grace, Paul MacKay and music director Alasdair Macrae) who play a whirlwind variety of supporting roles and many authentic instruments—Grace plays Scottish Border pipes, whistles, ukulele and the bodhran (a drum), and sings. Her “musical husband” Macrae plays fiddle and guitar and they’ve been collaborators on many projects and performances.

There’s another member of the cast as well: the audience.

As conceived and written by David Grieg, with the original members of the cast and director Wils Wilson, the show is designed to take place in a pub and it’s meant to involve the audience in sundry ways. “The audience is in close contact to the spectacle and becomes part of the show, that’s essential,” says Grace. Last time, Prudencia played in June in the backroom of the Wicked Wolf. This time, it’s found a more suitable locale at Gryphon’s Pub, the hang-out of Yale grad students tucked away off York Street (officially it’s The Graduate and Professional Student Club—or GPSCY—at Yale). Prudencia’s tale of sparring and romancing academics at a winter conference in Kelso in the Scottish Borders region should feel right at home.

The music and story, Grace says, were inspired by border ballads, such as Tam Lin, a tale of metamorphosis at the hands of a fairie queen. There’s also a run-in with the devil and much enchantment, as well as a ribald romp of a bacchanal. As Grace says, Prudencia is a straight-laced, buttoned-up sort, who is “actually a wee bit naughty but doesn’t realize it.” Stuck in a blizzard in the Scottish Borders, she comes to learn that “hell is a bed-and-breakfast in Kelso.”

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Grace says Prudencia is a play “that keeps on giving,” an extended work “dear to our hearts because we helped create it.” Initially, Greig showed up with six pages of script and the basic idea. He had been working in site-specific theater for children and was eager to do the same thing for adults. And where do adults become most like children? Why, at a pub of course. The show has gone up in small halls and theaters as well but Grace says it’s not the same ambiance. In fact, a key comic scene takes place in a pub in the play—or a pub within a pub—where the cast gets to do knock-offs of the kind of folk scene one finds in Kelso. This time the tour will end in Kelso itself. One can only imagine the devilry the locals will get up to for that event—since the scenes set in the pub there were inspired by actual local performers that Greig encountered on his “fact-finding” visit to the town. So, instead of the kinds of ancient ballads Prudencia is keen to encounter, you get a laughable bollocks of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

No matter how many times they play their roles, Grace says, the troupe members are “always finding new things. David Greig is really a genius and the play is so very clever.” Most of the script is in verse and, Grace says, it sometimes takes a while for the audience to realize it. The devil, however, speaks prose and the scenes of satanic encounter strike a different note from the rest. There are also jokes about academia and popular culture and the once cutting-edge combination called “cultural studies.” “Colin is keen to bring folk studies into the twenty-first century,” Grace says, and Prudencia is less than amused by his fast and loose approach to their mutual discipline. Which makes for a lot of fun at the expense of both. Some of the references are starting to date a bit, Grace concedes, “iPods aren’t a new thing any more and are starting to be a bit passé.” Still, it’s not as if we didn’t all live through the early 21st century.

In looking for locales for the show, Grace says, the troupe needs a big room with good sight lines. “The play was conceived as a storytelling show—like 30 people sitting around a fire.” So it’s best with an audience of 120 max and tables and maybe a bit of drinking. In explaining the show and its setting, Grace refers to an old tradition: what it means “to have a song. Like a party piece, the thing you sing” that becomes your trademark, so to speak. Prudencia, she says, “has to find her song.”

And what better place to find a song—that’s also a tall tale, a quest for personal fulfillment, a journey of discovery, a research expedition, a romance, an enchantment, and a deal with the devil—than in the Scottish Borders, in the snow? Or in New Haven, in a pub.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart plays tonight, April 1, at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 2, at 3 & 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 3, at 3 p.m.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents:
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
From the National Theatre of Scotland

Created by David Greig and Wils Wilson

Festival 2016

March 30-April 3, 2016
The Gryphon's Pub
204 York Street
New Haven

With All My Hart: The National Theatre of Scotland at Wicked Wolf

ARTS & IDEAS: Writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson have created a touring production that brings a bit of Scotland to this year’s Arts & Ideas. The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart mixes scholarship about border ballads with folklore about unwary travelers snagged by the devil, incorporates romantic comedy situations and also tweaks the twee staples of Scots culture as well as the tweeting tendencies of our global moment. And what’s more, most of the show is in rhyme, and heavily inflected by Scots’ accents—ta buute!

Staged at the Wicked Wolf Tavern (all productions of the play on tour will take place in taverns or in tavern-like settings), Prudencia Hart is a good night out, managing to be funny, brainy, bawdy, spooky, sexy, silly, and a wee bit longer than it needs to be. It tells the tale of a scholar, Prudencia (Madeleine Worrall), who goes to a conference in the sticks, only to be ruffled by a rival colleague, the hip-as-can-be Colin (David McKay), and then subsequently—to avoid close quarters with him at a B&B—gets lost in the snow, only to encounter mysterious characters such as the Woman in White (Annie Grace) and an affable fellow (Andy Clark) who may have dark designs.

The cast is joined by Alasdair Macrae, the award-winning composer and musical director of the play, who aids in sundry ways by bringing in music, playing an emcee, and helping to keep things rolling with his manic presence. If fatigue sets in, it’s probably going to be during the lengthy masked bit, which has the feel of one of those interminable drinking games that are better experienced far from sober—the topic here is the debauchery of some locals in the town of Kelso, and is perhaps the sort of thing that might play better not so far from home. As it is, for comic purposes, I was much more entertained by the mock-ups of the kind of local jokes posing as talents one would be likely to find in a Scots pub on a cold winter’s night, flailing the hide off over-familiar folk tunes.

Another longueur surfaces in Act 2—and part of the trouble is right there: it’s a two-act play that has to pad itself a bit to sport a proper length—when our heroine Prudencia is imprisoned in a hellish B&B (though the extensive library makes it heavenly to our ever curious lassie) and the exchanges between Prudencia and her host resort to prose.

There’s no way this part isn’t going to seem flat after all the sprightly rhymes and bouncy rhythms of Act 1. The slowing of the pace serves a purpose, but it has the feel of a glass of bubbly after the bubbles have gone.

The game cast makes the most of the space, moving about among the audience, jumping up on the tables, and coming at us from all sides. One improv moment I particularly enjoyed occurred when Colin greeted a fellow seated at my table (Broken Umbrella Theatre’s Ian Alderman) as “Hamish”; Hamish-Ian greeted him back and was told “ah, you’ve lost your accent.” Without missing a beat, Alderman replied, “I’ve had amnesia.” Again, most of this sort of hijinks occurs in the first half when we’re all still delighted with each other’s company. In the second half, there’s an attempt to bring the energy back up to the raucous by having McKay, in his underwear, cavort karaoke-style for the worshipful locals, but I found him more entertaining bickering over the deconstructive tendencies of modern scholarship rather than loutishly strutting.

Andy Clark’s sinister host was well done and Annie Grace’s spooky lady—lit only by the light (“once a Girl Guide always a Girl Guide”) on Prudencia’s head—memorable with her keening vocals. As Prudencia, Madeleine Worrall embodies perfectly the stodgy intellectual who ends up finding a bit of peril, a bit of fun, and a whole lot of new material for her research; she boasts a wonderfully settled composure no matter how wacky or other-worldly the goings-on might be.

As a staging space, the Wicked Wolf leaves a bit to be desired. The lighting is, for the most part, restaurant houselights, not great at setting a mood. The part in total blackness, but for Prudencia’s beacon, was a welcome change, as were the candlelit bits. There’s also the large brick pillar in the center of the playing space to be considered, and where you sit in relation to it will affect your access. The National Theatre of Scotland has no home base and so presents its moveable feasts all over the country and all over the world in site-specific locations. The benefit of avoiding the tired old distance between audience and actors is the feeling of lively impromptu in a shared space.

More than anything, Prudencia Hart is to be relished for its language, for the lilt of the accents, for its music and voices and many clever asides. It also managed at times—miraculously—to transport us to cold and snowy Kelso on a very hot June night in a not overly air conditioned New Haven establishment.

And that strange doing was most welcome.


IF YOU GO: What: National Theatre of Scotland's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart When: June 22-23 & 26-30 at 7 p.m.; June 23, 24, 27 at 1 p.m. Where: Wicked Wolf Tavern, 144 Temple St. Tickets: $34-$45 ($15 food and beverage minimum) Info:

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