Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Alan Warner - Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

The Sopranos were very much
on Vicky Featherstone and Lee Hall's minds when they bumped into each other at
an awards ceremony several years ago. Not HBO's much-lauded New Jersey-based
crime family saga that put patriarchal mobsters in the psychiatrist's chair
during its eight year run  between 1999 and 2007, but something which charted a
gang mentality much closer to home. Featherstone and Hall were actually
pondering Alan Warner's novel of the same name that was published a year before
the iconic TV show, and which the then artistic director of the National Theatre
of Scotland and the author of Billy Elliot thought might work well on the
stage.

Warner's book charts  the life in a day of a teenage female choir who
travel down from the nameless port where they live to a city not unlike
Edinburgh, where they are scheduled to take part in a choir competition. Once
let loose in the big city, the girls embark on a series of booze-fuelled
adventures that are by turns hysterical and heartbreaking.

“We'd both been
fans of the book from when it came out,“ Hall says, “and even then I thought it
would make a good play. When I bumped into Vicky, we got talking, and I said I
was surprised the National Theatre of Scotland had never done it, and she said
she really wanted to, and would I be interested in writing it.”

The eventual
result of all this is Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Hall's newly named
adaptation of The Sopranos, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in a production
by Featherstone for the NTS this week. Having been initially unable to acquire
the rights to the book, once they did Featherstone and Hall went on a road trip
to Oban to try and capture some of the energy that fuelled Warner's
potty-mouthed creations.

“I recall sending them a list of the locations where
I imagined certain scenes occurring,” Warner says. “I wanted them to see the
setting in an atmospheric way rather than anything too literal. The Port is very
much a place of my imagination. It’s not a literal transference of Oban. It’s an
autonomous zone in my mind, but the small town setting is important, so I
basically just transposed a girl’s convent school to that Scottish location. I
wanted to show young women as they really are in my opinion, not as the church
or society, or even novelists would like them to be.”

The rights to The
Sopranos had been initially snapped up by film director Michael Caton-Jones, who
spent several years trying to put the book onscreen. With several scripts
drafted by writers including the late Alan Sharp and Warner himself, to date the
project appears to have been moth-balled by studios insisting on compromises
which Caton-Jones wasn't prepared to make. Somewhere along the way, however, in
Warner's eyes, at least, Caton-Jones' vision for The Sopranos pretty much
invented the concept for the high school based TV drama, Glee.

“Mike was the
first person to bring up the musical possibilities of the adaptation,” Warner
says. “I mean, why not? It is about a choir. It might seem obvious now, but in
2000 in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, Mike and I had a huge conversation when he
spelled out a scenario where each character would sing and the film would fall
out of realism into a musical world. I thought it was a great idea. Sort of
Camelot meets Scottish dirty realism. Years later when I saw Glee on a cable
channel I was like, Wow!”

The roots of Warner's novel date back to when he
was living in Dublin, just before the mobile phone era.

“Phones have changed
everything for story telling,” Warner points out, “so the novel would be
completely different now just because of mobiles. For instance, those chapters
where all the girls get split up and go off on their own adventures and get lost
in the big city, that would be impossible now with mobiles. Every novel is of
its time, but you can only hope something lasting about us all is contained
within it.”

As far as any directly personal influences go, “My wife Hollie
Lisa and her buddies were in the choir at a state convent school in Ireland,” he
says, “and it was from them I first heard about some choral shenanigans. But it
was far more the concept that started off the novel rather than any specific
incidents, the idea of a girl gang of hell-raisers sealed into a pious choir.

“Young women in groups like that were and still are charged with huge energy
and lots of humour. I was never a guy who went about in big teams of lads, you
know, like twenty-two blokes going to Tenerife for a fortnight all with the same
coloured shorts. That’s a nightmare to me and probably the results in terms of a
novel with that are a bit obvious, spilled condoms and spilled pints. But young
women are more open about their feelings and a touch more introspective, and
often, might I say, more inventively bitchy rather than gruff and
cynical.”

Featherstone, who is now in charge of the Royal Court Theatre in
London, sees The Sopranos and Our Ladies as “a lament for the power of youth,
and how you'll never be that fearless again, and how you want to try everything
you can before life hits you, and there's something very poignant about that,
and the fact that they're a Catholic choir, there's something transcendent about
that as well. It feels quite sacred, even though these young women get caught up
in all these ridiculous situations. There are so many pitiful men in the book,
but these young women triumph. It makes you ask what they become after they've
had this moment of being in charge, and where are there lives going to
lead.”

Warner revisited his unruly charges in his Booker prize listed 2010
novel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, which was set largely in Gatwick
Airport.

“They were a bit older in that book, all about twenty-one,” Warner
says. “Of course, I am hugely fond of them all, and they still seem very much
around me. They are like a bunch of annoying little sisters who I secretly
adore.”

With this in mind, might we yet see another return of his magnificent
girl group?

“I did have a terrifying concept of them attending a wedding on
the Isle of Mull that gets confused with a Boy Racer Rally going on
simultaneously,” he says. “The Sopranos versus the Boy Racers was my working
title in my notebook, sort of Alien versus Predator.  I left them in 2001 in
Gatwick, so if I jump ahead to say 2007, it would be interesting what was
happening with them all. Marriage, families, children. Status envy. Affairs.
Divorce. Maybe it’s time for a school reunion 2018,” he says, “smart phones and
all.”

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Traverse Theatre, Aug 19-30, various
times, then on
tour.
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, August 17th 2015
ends

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