Sister Act

Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additions by Douglas Carter Beane, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater based upon the movie written by Joseph Howard
Jamie Wilson and Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin McCollum, Gavin Kalin, Robbie Wilson and Curve
Palace Theatre, Manchester

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Sandra Marvin as Deloris Van Cartier Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lesley Joseph as Sister Mary Lazarus, Sandra Marvin as Deloris Van Cartier, Keala Settle as Sister Mary Patrick and Company Credit: Manuel Harlan
Jennifer Saunders as Mother Superior Credit: Manuel Harlan
Clive Rowe as Eddie Souther and Company Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lesley Joseph as Sister Mary Lazarus and Sandra Marvin as Deloris Van Cartier Credit: Manuel Harlan
Jeremy Secomb as Curtis Jackson Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lesley Joseph as Sister Mary Lazarus, Keala Settle as Sister Mary Patrick, Lizzie Bea as Sister Mary Robert and Company Credit: Manuel Harlan

As the curtain rises, a procession of nuns cross the stage singing hideously off-key, a bell-rope snaps and a nun curses. Sister Act is a show that wastes no time going for the laughs.

Deloris (Sandra Marvin) is a delusional rather than an aspirational singer. So determined to get a night-club booking, she enters a relationship with Curtis (Jeremy Secomb) who is not only married but a mobster. Having witnessed Curtis commit a murder, Deloris is put in police protection until the court date and Officer Souther (Clive Rowe) considers the safest place in which to hide her is a cash-strapped convent with a world-weary Mother Superior (Jennifer Saunders). Yet Deloris discovers leading the choir may be her true vocation, even though the publicity could attract the attention of the mobsters.

As Sister Act is so familiar as a movie, it is tempting to overlook its success as a stage musical. Yet the songs—in particular "It’s Good to be a Nun"—are every bit as satirically biting as anything in The Book of Mormon.

Director Bill Buckhurst builds a larger-than-life atmosphere that avoids the show becoming just a series of gags strung together. This is a community in which patrons of a rowdy bar instantly offer to stand rounds for the nuns and a trio of hoodlums suddenly become a backing chorus in the style of Gladys Knight & the Pips. Buckhurst builds his off-centre atmosphere around the eccentric nature of the characters. It seems entirely reasonable Clive Rowe should morph from a dull police officer into a Travolta fantasy figure and back again within moments.

The effect is unashamedly feelgood, almost a fairy tale atmosphere. The villains are played for laughs rather than as a genuine threat and the Monsignor does not hesitate to become a Master of Ceremonies revelling in the unexpected crowds visiting the convent.

Much of the success of the gags depends on the speed of execution so Morgan Large’s adaptable set is a real asset. The set switches from a decaying gothic church to a seedy bar or full-on disco within seconds and all are completely convincing. The eye-popping costumes, also designed by Large, contribute to the brightly exaggerated mood of the show.

The central roles are reversed from what might be expected with Sandra Marvin’s hard-bitten Deloris coming across as an evangelist while Jennifer Saunders’s Mother Superior is a weary cynic. Deloris has a wide-eyed belief in her own talent and the power of music, enchanted upon entering the convent by the quality of the acoustics. Saunders has impeccable comic timing and is capable of getting laughs without speaking purely by her baffled reaction to the sudden improvement in the choir’s singing or by, er, shaving.

The cast throw themselves into the odd-ball characters with rare enthusiasm. Keala Settle is a ball of energy contrasting neatly with Lesley Joseph’s deadpan approach assuring the audience she can not only hit the note, she can do so in Latin. Lizzie Bea’s charmingly naïve nun movingly demonstrates Sister Act is not just a bunch of jokes by belting out the anthemic The Life I Never Led.

Sister Act is so good one might suspect Divine intervention, but its success is likely to be due more to the quality of the production and a first-rate cast.

Reviewer: David Cunningham