views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Etcetera Theatre
27th August 2016


Publicity photograph for Nuns

Photography provided by Perform and Give

People often say to write what you know, but unless there's something playwright Robert Luxford isn't telling us, Nuns isn't based on any real life experiences. Which is probably a good thing for the Church's reputation given the behaviour of Luxford's four wild protagonists. Set outside a convent, we witness Sister Catherine (Sarah Malcolm), Sister Roza (Mia Hall) and Sister Bernadette (Kesia Guillery) meeting to indulge in some illicit smoking. As Catherine and Roza explain, alcohol and sex are all okay as long as you're discreet about it. Smoking for some reason though is treated as a far more serious vice by the Mother Superior (Michèle Belgrade), so the sisters hatch a plan to blackmail her. Bernadette finds herself pulled in different directions by the two women she attempts to befriend and by her convent's matriarch, which all culminates in tragedy.

Or starts in tragedy, depending on how you look at it. We begin at the end of the story and work our way back, with director Edwina Strobl rewinding the action in some fun sequences with plenty of light and colour from Sam Killingback and Fintan Davies. Although Reiko Tanaka's imposing set design with the grandiose pillars installed onstage creates an sense of tradition, Alexandra Kapsala and Felicity Wood's costume are allowed to be more inventive with their design than you would think. Yes, the protagonists are all dressed in drab habits, but underneath the black and white are 50 shades of corsets, negligees and fishnet stockings. This is an irreverent, daft piece of fun, reflected in all the different design elements.

Give Nuns is obviously not intended to be a realistic depiction of life in nunnery, you have to suspend belief and let a lot of things slide, which is fine. It's primary a comedy, after all. However, the sudden shift where Bernadette stands up for herself seems unnatural, even within the loose limits of what goes for normal in this play and it's a shame that this turning point isn't handled more credibly. When the nuns are laughing and joking and playing around, there's a strong dynamic that works well, however scenes involving a bit more emotional depth aren't as successful, with the exception perhaps of Catherine's remorse. Malcolm's portrayal is the most rounded.

The style of humour through is very much crude and basic, with the laughs derived from the notion that it must be hilarious for nuns to have any kind of desires or personal agendas, but this all follows from the writing. Strobl draws out the comedic elements and with a full house and plenty of laughter, it's evident that there is an appeal.

Amongst all the madness, there are some interesting comments on religion, with the hypocrisy in condemning only certain vices and accepting others the loudest message in this play. The start is admittedly a little ropey and those who don't take issue with the holes in the plot may instead take issue with the blasphemy, however have a little faith, it does develop into something quite watchable and light-hearted. Profits are to be donated to Smart Works, a charity supporting women into employment and financial independence, which makes it hard not to forgive any lack of respect. The company's mission to perform and then give is an admirable one and I'm intrigued to see their future work.

Nuns opened on 25th August and runs until 28th August 2016 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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