When Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court, ran into her friend Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, the duo decided, after having had a couple of drinks, to develop a musical adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos. Following the lives of six Scottish schoolgirls who, as members of the choir of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, spend 24 hours in Edinburgh for a singing competition, it doesn’t immediately sound as if it possesses the starry qualities of a smash hit.
But Featherstone and Hall are masters of their craft, and the story is a little less sanctimonious than it sounds. Let loose in the city, the girls promptly indulge in a raucous jumble of sambuca and sexual experimentation, downing magic-mushroom lager and swapping teary confessions, whilst singing esoteric combinations of Bach and Bartók, mixed with snatches of the Brookside theme tune.
Featherstone first discovered Warner’s book when she was running the National Theatre of Scotland, and was immediately charmed by his ability to capture the vernacular and emotional arc of teenage girls. “He uses fifty different words just for laughing,” she says. “He has this incredible ability to go from this very high level of excitement to really sad, thoughtful, painful, true human stuff. I think it was those two things that really drew me to it. And his wit. He is very, very funny.”
Characteristically, though, beyond the chaotic hilarity of the Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, the play is underpinned with a weighted smack of substance. Featherstone is famously drawn towards theatre that is bluntly political and socially acute. She is a dedicated champion of women in the arts, and painstakingly sets aside as many seats as possible at the Court for young theatre-goers. Presented with piles of plays every season, the ones that really excite her, she says, are those that shift or disrupt in some way. “That is kind of the most exciting thing, when you go to the theatre, and you feel something you didn’t know you felt.”
The power and the provocation of Our Ladies is that it depicts working-class girls from the Scottish highlands–rare interlopers onto the stage. “These actresses, who are working-class girls from Scotland themselves, are telling the story of working-class girls from Scotland,” explains Featherstone. “[They] stand there against all the other extraordinary work that happens in London, and they are telling that story really simply, and in their own way.”
For Featherstone, it was fundamental to the success of the play that the girls were portrayed truthfully, as neither cliched nor contrived. There is a teenage pregnancy in the story, and one of the girls has cancer. But instead of dominating the plot as dour, stark dramas, the difficult aspects of their lives are woven into the overarching, lusty excitement of a group of girls free to roam a capital city for a day. “There are these really tragic stories but they never become victims of them,” says Featherstone. “They are always celebrating their life force and their friendship, more than the things that they are a victim of.”
What Featherstone hopes is that her wild, zany musical will be viewed not just as an eccentric rough diamond, but will allow other, similar stories to be told. “I would hope it would open doors for people to kind of follow—not follow, that sounds too arrogant–but actually feel like they can tell these stories like this,” she says. “It’s not the first time it’s ever been done. It’s been done so many, many times before, in so many brilliant ways, but it feels quite exciting for us.”—Isobel Thompson
Credit: Manuel Harlan