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Musical theatre: Sister Act (Dominion Theatre, London)

28 March 2024

Simon Walsh on nuns’ return to the stage

Johan Persson

Lizzie Bea as Sister Mary Robert, Beverley Knight as Deloris, and company in the 2024 production of the musical Sister Act

Lizzie Bea as Sister Mary Robert, Beverley Knight as Deloris, and company in the 2024 production of the musical Sister Act

NUNS, guns, and disco. The musical Sister Act has returned to the West End of London in time for Easter; and what a show it is! Based on the 1992 film, the score here is by Disney’s go-to composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. There’s plenty for the cast to tear into, which they do from the top. “Take me to heaven,” they sing. Hallelujah!

Philadelphia, 1977. The plot, such as it is, has the unlucky nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier accidentally witness her gangster boyfriend, Curtis (thuggishly played by Lemar), shoot another man. Her life now in danger, she seeks out the police, who shelter her as their key witness in the local convent. But Deloris (Beverley Knight on full wattage) is untameable, wholly unsuited to the religious life. But then she hears the convent choir, and takes the nuns in hand to “find their inner voice”.

Her nemesis is Ruth Jones as the Mother Superior, who plays it Welsh and wrings every comedic drop out of the role. She sings with a Judi Dench technique, and, when she is paired with Carl Mullaney’s Monsignor O’Hara, much humour ensues. But a plot twist says that two “bachelors” want to buy the impoverished Our Lady of the Perpetual Sorrow and turn it into an antiques emporium. The choir goes into overdrive, and soon the church attracts the crowds and their cash. Pope Paul VI hears of this and announces a visit.

By now, however, the Mother Superior can no longer stand Deloris’s being there, and the police (gloriously embodied in Clive Rowe’s moony officer Eddie Souther) come to retrieve the non-nun. She has to go back to the convent, though; she can’t abandon her Sisters after all, which we learn in the 11-o’clock number and title song “Sister Act”. Yet TV coverage of the songster Sisters has blown Deloris’s cover and soon the gangsters appear to get her. When all the nuns are threatened as a group at gunpoint, it gets a bit Dialogues des Carmélites.

Church items are hilariously deployed as weapons to catch the villains: thuribles, bell ropes, a candelabra. Then they can get back to the singing. The popemobile whizzes past with a waving Holy Father. The rainbow finale redefines camp, with an apparent devotion to the Sacred Heart (its emblem across all the costumes).

Beverley Knight is sensational as Deloris, and what pipes she has. She grinds through the Motown and disco gears with ease. Her star quality is in abundance and a rising tide for all boats. The nuns are terrific. Lesley Joseph brings masterly comic timing, and Lizzie Bea’s voice is a marvel, to name but two. The three gangster stooges are Bradley Judge, Damian Buhagiar, and Tom Hopcroft; more comedy, and a superb sub-Bee Gees number with “Lady in the long dress”.

There’s a vast team behind this, and it shows. The budget must be huge. Bill Buckhurst directs a strong cast with energy. Alistair David’s choreography bursts into life at key moments. The set is designed by Morgan Large: Gothic windows, pillars, and stained-glass arches behind the proscenium; glitter balls in front. His costumes are true 1970s, and we won’t quibble that the monsignor has a red biretta to match his red chasuble. Tim Mitchell’s lights bathe, wash, and suffuse everything from sacristy to discotheque. Stephen Brooker oversees the lively, brass-heavy band which Tom Marshall’s sound design mixes flawlessly.

Yes, it might be as saccharine as an overdose of chocolate eggs but who cares? Get thee to a nunnery. Amen!

Sister Act is at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London WC2, until 31 August (cast change in June). sisteractthemusical.co.uk/london

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