Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is a cacophonous coming of age story, complete with fireworks, smoke machines and audaciously funny one liners, but it is the six main characters themselves that truly make the performance.
It is incredibly refreshing to see female characters who are raucous, rude and badly behaved, while simultaneously human and layered. Slut shaming and stereotypes would have us believe that being sex-obsessed, drunk and disorderly precludes tenderness and complexity, but Our Ladies shows these impulses authentically and inextricably combined in the urgency of youth. We see drunken honesty provoke self discovery, shopping inspire intimate moments of friendship, and sex pursued in order to live life to the full.
The girls are fizzing with energy and bravado, bursting into song and embodying myriad other characters as they recount their hectic 24 hours in Edinburgh. But they are also each dealing individually with complex and often difficult life experiences, from illness to sexuality, from poverty to pregnancy to grief. The quieter moments of the play, where characters talk through their experiences, often to one other girl, or directly to the audience, are by far the most moving and memorable, often adding explanation and depth to their more rowdy behaviour.
What can be disturbing is how the play’s happy-go-lucky attitude takes amorality a little too far, with very dubious sexual consent played off as comedy on more than one occasion. At one point, a dangerously stoned girl “takes one for the team”, having sex with an adult man as payment for drugs. In moments like this, the play’s pleasing scorn for the excessive moralising the girls face, from nuns at school, parents and society at large, seems to become something darker, where the outrageous must be accepted as fun, however damaging something may be in reality.
Ultimately, the play addresses the importance (and limits) of one great night of freedom. It is a joyful experience to see these girls so unfettered, juxtaposed with the rigid expectations of their strict Catholic school. That fact that this night of debauchery is enabled by a school trip to a choir competition is tickling in itself, as is the contrast between their initial angelic choral singing and the foul-mouthed chaos that subsequently ensues. It is also moving as we come to understand the importance of this night for each individual character: what they, sometimes naively, hope will come from it, or what the night unexpectedly helps them understand about themselves. Bold, jocular Fionulah’s frank introspection (Dawn Sievewright) and gradual self acceptance is particularly beautiful to watch.
In Orla’s case (Isis Hainsworth), her illness makes a tragedy of the common realisation that culturally-loaded experiences like having sex for the first time are not necessarily life-changing. She doesn’t have time for her life to change slowly, as significant experiences come randomly and unpursued. Though less desperately, the other girls act on a similar impulse: the rarity and specialness of this day of complete freedom, in the midst of lives restricted by circumstance, means that it must be enjoyed and risked and lived to the full.
Our Ladies is essentially the story of six teenagers on an all-day piss up, but the significance of that to these particular characters, at this moment in their lives, cannot be ignored.