As road trips go, it’s a short one. The journey from Oban, a port on the west coast of Scotland, to the capital city of Edinburgh will take you less than three hours. But for the adolescent girls in Alan Warner’s vivid and funny 1998 novel “The Sopranos,” the return trip gives way to a coming-of-age odyssey of heavy drinking, sexual fumbling and self-discovery that will define them forever. Adapted as “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” by playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), the production, premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe, becomes a joyful estrogen-fueled life-in-a-day romp that is one stop short of a full-blown musical, and every bit as exhilarating.
It’s the day of a singing competition in the big city and before the convent-school choir sets off, Sister Condron (inevitably rechristened Condom) puts the girls on their best behavior. Not only are they representing their school and their home town, she says, but also “God himself.”
Her hyperbole gets a laugh, but it is made funnier still by the girls in her charge. A more godless bunch of young women is hard to imagine. In their list of priorities, singing in the choir comes a long way after smoking, drinking and sex. The school that gives the play its title is known colloquially as the “Virgin Megastore,” and such is the pregnancy rate that there’s an annual competition to see how many fail to make it to the final exams.
The story’s transition to the stage pays many dividends. One joke that’s latent in the novel, for example, comes gloriously to life when the six-strong cast give heavenly renditions of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams one minute only to step back into their foul-mouthed selves the next. Under the free-flowing direction of Vicky Featherstone (making a temporary return to the National Theater of Scotland from her current post as artistic director at London’s Royal Court), the young actors have tremendous presence, switching effortlessly from fast-talking teen banter to melt-in-the-mouth harmonies.
What galvanizes the audience, however, is less the ecclesiastical numbers than Martin Lowe’s thrilling arrangements of 20th-century pop songs. Focusing in particular on the hits of the Electric Light Orchestra (an anachronism stemming from a parental record collection), the girls give fresh renditions of “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Sweet Talking Woman,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” and others, as well as making a diversion into a plangent “No Woman No Cry.” With backing by a three-piece band, the songs add to the exuberance and sense of teenage lust for life.
Hall does an intelligent job in adapting the novel, inevitably losing some detail but staying true to the narrative structure and sensitive to the switches in tone from the raucous to the poignant. Just as the language in Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” found new vigor when adapted for the stage, so Warner’s keenly observed dialogue seems even funnier when spoken out loud. But there’s a serious side too.
On the surface, all the girls care about is completing the singing competition quickly in order to return home for the familiar debauchery of the Mantrap night club. Their afternoon in Edinburgh leads to a darkly comic sequence of hospital visits, property theft and romantic trysts, but behind the farce and the chaos, Warner has much to say about how these young lives have been determined by social circumstance and personal misfortune.
Hall, who explored similar tensions between aspiration and upbringing in “Billy Elliot” and “The Pitmen Painters,” is wise to this undercurrent and intersperses the action with aria-like monologues that add emotional weight to the story. No doubt there will be tragedies ahead, but as the Oban sun rises on these six young women, it feels like some kind of sweet resolution.