Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Sister Act – swapping sorrow for solidarity as the sisterhood learn to sing under the disco glitterball (Grand Opera House until Saturday 28 January)

A trinity of glitter balls hang over the audience as I Will Survive plays, the theatre doors close, and the house lights dim at the start of Sister Act. It’s Christmas Eve, but the Sisters of Perpetual Sorrow have little to celebrate. Their convent is falling apart, the Sunday congregation and its weekly offering is shrinking, and their days are well and truly numbered as commercial interests see more secular potential for the property.

Elsewhere in the city, singing wannabe Doloris (played with passion and power by Sandra Marvin) is under the cosh of gangster nightclub owner Curtis who discovered her in McDonalds. But when she witnesses a moment of violent retribution, her days are numbered and the police make her go into hiding in an unexpected location.

Well, “Sisters, the reviews are in” … to borrow a line from the script.

There are moments of great humour – the high-speed chase on a rickshaw is expertly performed – and some splendidly neat scene changes. Later on, there’s an excellent solution to the question of who will play the part of the Pope in the second act concert. Police Chief Eddie Souther (played by Graham MacDuff on opening night in Belfast) has an unexpected double on-stage costume change during I Could Be That Guy: blink and you’ll miss the second one. And set designer Morgan Large’s stunning stained glass window creates a beautiful backdrop when it is finally revealed near the interval. (Though Bill Buckhurst’s 2023/4 touring set is much less elaborate than the Manchester version of his production in 2022, and the aerial stunts have been removed.)

The outrageous disco costumes mean that at times it’s hard to take Curtis (Jeremy Secomb) seriously as a killer, strutting around in patterns that nowadays you wouldn’t use for old curtains protecting furniture while you’re painting. His three-man crew are whiny and awkward, right up to the point they transform into brilliantly mocking backing singers.

The potential of Sister Act starts to show when Deloris (now Sister Mary Clarence) becomes caught up in the counter-cultural musical number It’s Good to Be a Nun. It’s hard not to grin as they rhyme “the world’s our oyster” with “locked inside a cloister”! But it takes 55 minutes before the ‘Whoopie’ moment when the first joyous convent choir rehearsal takes place and the shrieking sisters begin to blend and sparkle, putting an infamous folk mass incident behind them.

Lesley Joseph’s Mother Superior exudes disdain and her crisis of faith is palpable in Haven’t Got a Prayer. A well-known Jewish actor playing a Catholic nun definitely adds some unspoken comedy. Although Mother Superior/Joseph’s stern swagger could be even more pronounced, particularly when riffing off Doloris/Marvin’s sassy manner, and her dance choreography is noticeably less assured than her dialogue and singing.

Every time Rhys Owen comes on stage he makes Monsignor O’Hara even more outrageous and ostentatious. And hats off to Lizzie Bea who disguises the impressive voice of Sister Mary Robert (a young postulant seeking out her call to holy orders) before letting it loose in later scenes.

As you’d expect, it takes a while for the strait-laced and tradition-loving Mother Superior to warm up to the disruptive albeit talented singer who is sheltering in her convent. But she gets there, much like the overall Sister Act production in its powerful post-interval scene of reconciliation and the glorious moment around the reprise of the title song when the Sisters of Perpetual Sorrow swap sorrow for solidarity. Real emotional highpoints in a musical which does suffer from a baggy first half that ploughs through a lot of slow character development. Overall, the show is great in some parts, but a little underwhelming in others.

A review of last night’s performance wouldn’t be complete without a shoutout to a really well-behaved baby a few rows behind me in the stalls. Little people who don’t check their phones or try to video the performance, and who don’t talk loudly to their friends and family should be a very welcome addition to any auditorium. Parents know their bairns. Hopefully the first of many theatre visits for that little tot.

Sister Act continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 28 January (with early mass, I mean matinees, on Thursdays and Saturdays). The tour will end in Derry’s Millennium Forum in January 2024.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan (note that some of the photos show the 2022 Manchester cast and set)

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