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How a choir of Catholic schoolgirls swore their way to success

Is it a play? Is it a musical? Is it a gig?

Whatever it is, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour has arrived in London’s West End in a blaze of filthy language and ELO’s greatest hits.

Once you’ve heard Mr Blue Sky and Wild West Hero sung like this, you may not want to go back to the originals.

Set over a single day, Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos follows six Catholic school girls on a trip to Edinburgh for a choir competition.

But don’t be fooled by the gentle opening as the choirgirls in kilts sing Mendelssohn’s Lift Thine Eyes in angelic harmony.

As soon as the sweet choral notes fade, the girls slouch, pull out cigarettes and swear like troopers.

The language is so ripe that sometimes members of the audience have walked out. It’s why the show comes with a 16+ rating.

Speaking after Monday’s opening night at the Duke of York’s theatre, cast member Caroline Deyga, who plays Chell, relates an incident in Scotland when a woman left early.

“She told the front of house team that if it had been men swearing like that it would have been alright, but because it was women she couldn’t take it.”

She adds: “I think about that a lot. Because that is the reason why this play exists. You may not see it all the time, but girls do speak like that.

“You’re being told their story their way – and having to face that is quite shocking.”

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour had its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, and then toured the UK and visited Australia and the US before a sell-out run last year at the National Theatre.

This year it won the Olivier Award for best new comedy while its all-female cast received a collective nomination for best supporting actress.

Five of the original cast of six – Deyga (Chell), Karen Fishwick (Kay), Kirsty MacLaren (Manda), Frances Mayli McCann (Kylah) and Dawn Sievewright (Fionnula) – reprise their roles for the West End transfer, with Isis Hainsworth joining the company as Orla.

Fishwick jokily recalls that the first time she read the script she thought it was “absolute filth”.

“I was on the Isle of Skye, it was a calm day and it came down like a bolt of lightning – it was unlike anything I’d ever read before.”

Sievewright adds: “It’s the most important thing in the world to show how young women talk and act.

“A lot of people are shocked by that and think they shouldn’t be speaking in that way.

“But it’s not a Greek tragedy, it’s not Shakespeare. It’s working class girls doing what they do.”

Writer Lee Hall, who created Billy Elliot, had long wanted to turn The Sopranos into a stage show.

But it wasn’t until seven years ago when he met director Vicky Featherstone – who was then in charge of National Theatre of Scotland – at an awards ceremony, that the project began to take shape.

“We started really small because it’s a very complicated show,” Hall says of the Edinburgh premiere two years ago. “They look like they are throwing it together, but if you see the sound desk behind the scenes it looks like one that Bruce Springsteen would have at Wembley.”

The show’s eclectic song list was picked by Hall and music arranger Martin Lowe. Many are hits from the Electric Light Orchestra back catalogue.

“We hit upon the ELO songs almost by accident but they seemed to speak to the story so well,” admits Hall.

“It’s a really lovely mix of Handel and Bartok and Jeff Lynne. It doesn’t get better than that!”

Hall notes that the girls in the story are a type often pilloried in the popular media.

“We wanted to have something that really celebrated those people,” he says. “They are powerful, intelligent young women.”

Featherstone, who now runs London’s Royal Court, says it’s important not to take the characters at face value.

“We get increasingly more critical of teenagers as time goes on,” she notes, “and we ask deeper and darker questions about hard it is to be a teenager.

“For me its very gratifying and affirming to realise this story was written in the ’90s and these teenagers were going through as much as the teenagers we demonise today.”

And she’s proud to have a show in the West End that doesn’t bare all the traditional hallmarks.

“It’s not necessarily a musical, it’s not a serious play with stars in,” she says.

“If anything it is a gig that the girls are doing to tell us the story of their day. I haven’t really got a word for it.

“I always think that the best kind of theatre is indefinable.”

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 2 September.

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