"Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour" is about a group of rural Scottish schoolgirls who get a chance to run down the avenues of the big city of Edinburgh, on a weekend trip to a national singing competition.
What mischief can they get up to? The sky's the limit.
Already a sensation in its native Scotland, "Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour" is an ideal fit for the 2016 International Festival of Arts & Ideas. This year's festival contains many theater and dance pieces fueled by live music. There are also prevailing themes of travel, freedom and youthful rebellion.
Playwright Lee Hall, reached by phone in Europe, calls "Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour" a "rite of passage" story about "the end of childhood. It's akin to 'The Last Picture Show.'"
The National Theatre of Scotland, which created the show with Hall last year, is bringing it to the International Festival of Arts and Ideas for its U.S. premiere June 9 to 25 — one of the longest engagements for a single event in the festival's history. The NTS advertises "Our Ladies" as "a play about singing, sex and sambuca."
Performance-wise, Hall deems it "not like a play, not like a musical. It's almost like a gig with drama in it."
The show is based on a novel called "The Sopranos" by Alan Warner. The book was a best-seller in the UK, where Warner published a sequel ("The Stars in the Bright Sky") in 2010, but "The Sopranos" is hard to find in U.S. libraries and bookstores, and isn't available from Kindle.
So it's unlikely that U.S. audiences for "Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour" will have a familiarity with the show's literary source material. They will, however, know the songs well. Besides the immortal strains of Bach, Bartok, Handel, Mendelssohn and Ralph Vaughan Williams, there are half a dozen classical pop tunes by the Electric Light Orchestra, including an a cappella rendition of "Mr. Blue Sky" and such relative ELO obscurities as "Wild West Hero" and "Long Black Road."
"I read the book when it came out," Hall continues, "and immediately know it would be a great piece of theater." Unfortunately for him, a film company had already nabbed the rights to the novel. Hall connected with National Theatre of Scotland Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone, and they spent years talking about adapting the book, then snapped up the rights when they became available again.
Getting the ELO songs required as much patience and fortitude as it did to get the rights to the novel, Hall recalls. "I pleaded with Jeff Lynne. It took about a year to persuade him."
"There were four or five years of working on the material," Hall says. "In the book, the girls have a choir. The license I've taken is to have the girls also have their own band." Hall enlisted Martin Lowe, whom he calls "Britain's best musical director," to create special arrangements for the young all-female cast. Lowe's previous efforts with down-to-earth theatrical pop music earned him a Tony for the stage version of "Once"; he also oversaw international tours of the musical "Mamma Mia."
"This is quite a small show," Hall says of the six-actor, three-musician "Our Ladies," "but the caliber of the artistic team is extraordinary." He also praises the young cast, some of whom are performing in their first professional show.
"I've never worked with such a talented company," the writer says. The cast that is coming to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas is the same one that world-premiered the show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last summer. Two understudies have been added to the company, which will bring the show back to Scotland this fall, then to London's West End. A New York run is being investigated.
From "Billy Elliot" and numerous radio and stage plays, Hall has extensive experience working with young children.
"A lot of my work is about lost potential," he says. "A great way to prove that is to use kids."
In the case of "Our Ladies," Hall says, "I wrote the show for these performers. I was keen that these performers 'own' the show." During the casting process, Hall "realized I couldn't have actual 17-year-olds, but because this was the National Theatre of Scotland, I could have my pick of performers coming out of the drama schools. The roles are so demanding — you have to dance, act and be funny. It's quite hard to find six people who had all of those things."
As for the musical elements, "almost all my work now has music at the center of it," Hall says. "That's why I wanted to adapt this book — it makes for a very rich evening.
"Something special happens when you combine drama and live music. Music has always been at the heart of drama, from its most primitive forms to the Greeks to our time. There's only a small blip in theater history when music was not at the center of theater."
Hall's Familiar Works
"Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour" has gotten a lot of attention, coming as it does from the writer of the film and musical "Billy Elliot." Hall's other stage works include the landmark monologue piece "Spoonface Steinberg" (written in the voice of a young autistic girl) and the stage adaptation of "Shakespeare in Love," while his recent screenplays include "Pride and Prejudice" (2005, starring Keira Knightley), "The Wind in the Willows" (2006) and "War Horse" (2011). Hall's also translated plays by Brecht and Goldoni.
"Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour," Hall says, contains sexual references but is not "prurient. It shows the world through these girls' eyes. It's a world where they're in charge. I didn't want the male gaze to impact on their story," hence the all-female cast. "It's funny and moving and also quite unabashed."
Developing the show for a fringe festival, when major theaters are continually vying for his projects, suits Hall's preferred method of developing a show — organically, with an eye to its roots. "This is quite an intimate show," he repeats, "about girls going to Edinburgh, so it seemed appropriate to do it in Edinburgh. I'm keen to give shows the right place to start from."
Read a review here.
"OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR" runs June 9 to 25 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven, as part of the 2016 International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at both 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $85, $50 for seniors and $20 for students and youth. The 8 p.m. June 9 performance is a "Pay What You Wish" preview, with proceeds going to the Arts & Ideas Ticket Fund that makes admission prices more accessible throughout the festival. Reservations for the June 9 preview and ticket sales for regular June 10 to 25 can be made at artidea.org/ourladies. General information for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, which features dozens of events from June 11-25, is at artidea.org.