KICKING THE HABITS IN A KILBURN CONVENT
Mother Basil is dissecting a rabbit’s reproductive system for the O-level set, but as she reaches “vagina” the Angelus rings and everyone must recite “The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary..”etc. As work resumes, an innocent enquiry about sperm sends Mother Basil into palpitations and Mary Mooney to Reverend Mother Thomas Aquinas for a bollocking.
Full disclosure: I was a convent girl, a decade later than this play’s 1950 setting, and could have joined in that Angelus without hesitation. But my nuns were of a subtler and kinder disposition than the maniacal blackbeetles in Mary O’Malley’s 1970’s hit play. It is a savagely funny portrait of the Catholicism of the Irish diaspora, cultishly clinging to the regulatory aspects of the Faith at the expense of spiritual and charitable ones. It struck me as a curious parallel with how today’s Islamic burqa-fundamentalists console their exile in these chilly climes.
The play deals with three 15-year-olds, all inevitably called Mary, and their attempts to understand sexuality in the teeth of their demented mentors: three nuns, Father Mullarkey, and an ancient music-master obsessed with Gilbert and Sullivan. Two have boyfriends and know a bit, not least from the dirty bits of Leviticus. One is dating Derek, played by Calum Callaghan as a perpetually hair-combing Teddyboy with a bow-legged me-and-my-testicles swagger; another finds a dreadful posh-Catholic Cuthbert and goes all the way (ah, more personal memories: a chap called Malachy once informed me that extramarital sex is “all right between Catholics, because we can confess it”).
Director Kathy Burke opts to play it hard for laughs. Don’t look here for the tragedies of Catholicism or the agonies of children. Cecilia Noble could have delivered Mother Peter’s homilies about Purity in a cooler, more sinister way, but here all religious adults are played as one-note cholerics. And it is indeed hog-snortingly funny, from Mother Peter brandishing the compulsory stout Lady of Fatima Knicker, to the Purity lecture and Mary Mooney’s Irish Dancing. It’s not topically vicious: Father Mullarkey (Sean Campion, delightful) is not a bad man, just an eejit, embarrassedly kind when Mary Mooney (Molly Logan) wants to confess a Mortal Sin. She was coerced into giving a lad what she thinks he called a Twentieth Century Fox…Oh, she means a J. Arthur Rank. Tactless of the priest to offer her a sausage, but she does get absolution.
She wants it. Indeed the most serious character, and the only subtle performance, is Logan as the lumpen, lank-haired devout child of a family too poor to pay for her to go on the Fatima pilgrimage: a sweet open soul unrecognized by the purblind nuns amid her slyer classmates. Her wounded sincerity edges this romp of a show closest to angry satire. But it’s a period piece, and probably best played as a lark. There are darker plays to be written about Catholicism and sexuality, but in the cheerful ‘70s, when we shudderingly shrugged off the 1950s gloom, this one was needed.
box office 020 7328 1000 to 18 Jan