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6th July 2022

Review: Sister Act

Theatre Editor Jay Darcy and Jessica Hamilton review Sister Act at the Palace Theatre, starring Jennifer Saunders, Keala Settle, Lesley Joseph, Clive Rowe MBE, Lizzie Bea, and Sandra Marvin
Review: Sister Act
Lesley Joseph and Sandra Marvin. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Written by Jay Darcy and Jessica Hamilton.

This new production of Sister Act has been incredibly anticipated. The London production was set to star Whoopi Goldberg, the star of the film, but it was postponed because of the pandemic, and she was no longer available. Instead, British theatre legend (and soul sensation) Beverley Knight MBE – a 2 x Olivier nominee – is taking the reins in London.

The Manchester run precedes the London residency, which is followed by a UK tour. It’s sort-of a preview, hence, it has the same cast as London, save for Knight, who only finished her run in The Drifters’ Girl halfway through the Manchester run (but she was there on press night). Instead, Manchester had the sublime Sandra Marvin (Emmerdale) as disco diva Deloris.

Jay Darcy

The Cast

Pre-pandemic, the tour was set to star Brenda Edwards (The X FactorLoose WomenSongs of Praise), who most recently visited Manchester in Hairspray, and whilst she would have killed it, I am not disappointed to have not seen her, for Marvin was perfect in the role. Whilst she’s no Knight, I’d previously seen her in The Thunder Girls, so I knew she was a force to be reckoned with – but her portrayal of Deloris is something else entirely. Sassy and sympathetic, she stepped into a role that has been played by numerous stars, and she slayed!

Jennifer Saunders was announced alongside Goldberg all those years ago, but unlike Goldberg, she was able to do the new dates. Even better – whilst she’s not doing the tour, she’s playing the role here in Manchester!

The audience erupted into applause when she first came onstage – and by the end of the show, she earned every single clap and cheer!

Saunders is, of course, best known for French and Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous, but she’s also known for Friends, Shrek 2 (she played the fairy godmother, darlings), Jam & Jerusalem, Coraline (alongside Dawn French), Minions, Isn’t it Romantic, The Stranger, Death on the Nile, The Pentaverate (most recently), and so, so much more.

Keala Settle (Sister Mary Patrick) received second top billing on the poster. She is best-known for playing the Bearded Lady in The Greatest Showman (in which she sang the Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated ‘This is Me’), but is also known for being in the original casts of Hand on a Hardboy (for which she received a Tony nomination) and Waitress – and starring in Rent: Live. Like Saunders, she is only doing Manchester and London.

Whilst she was as fantastic as always, she was a little wasted. She never really got much time to shine. She’s the perfect choice to take on a role made famous by Kathy Najimy, but the stage version of the character is criminally underwritten.

The cast also included TV icon Lesley Joseph – who is currently playing Sister Mary Lazarus but will be taking over the role of Mother Superior when Saunders leaves the show. Joseph is best-known for Birds of a Feather, but some will recognise her from Absurd Person, Night and Day, Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity Coach Trip. Onstage, she is known for Thoroughly Modern Millie (first UK tour) and Young Frankenstein (original West End cast).

Whilst Saunders is perfectly cast as Mother Superior, I have no doubt that Joseph will fill her comfortable nun shoes!

Clive Rowe MBE played the male lead, Eddie Souther, to perfection. Best-known for starring in The Story of Tracy Beaker, he is also known for The Evermoor Chronicles, The Kennedys, So Awkward, Will, and Beauty and the Beast. I first saw him in The Prince of Egypt last year.

Rising theatre star Lizzie Bea completed the main cast. She has an incredible innocence to her that made her perfect for the role of Sister Mary Robert.

So, it’s an all-star cast – and they were perfectly cast! This wasn’t a case of casting “stars” to bring in audiences but the stars not being all that great. Every single actor was perfectly cast in this heavenly musical.

The Show

The show began in the convent. It was dark, dull and dreary – but we were quickly introduced to Deloris, singing the show’s main song, ‘Take Me to Heaven’. The two worlds were wonderfully contrast, a brilliant creative decision for those of us who knew what was coming…

The show’s set was spectacular. The main/fixed part of the set were the walls and ceiling of the convent, but countless set came and went, taking us from scene to scene. There were no expenses spared. It’s quite clearly a London production.

The show’s design has a remarkable attention-to-detail. A lot of time and money has gone into making this production a sparkling spectacle. Take the church windows doubling up as disco lights for the dance numbers, or the crazy costume changes. The best example was Eddie (Rowe) ripping off his police uniform to reveal a sparkly outfit and then ripping off that sparkly outfit to reveal his police uniform, as he came out of his fabulous fantasy and returned to his mundane job.

The stage musical is known for not using any of the songs from the film version – which featured well-known songs converted for a Catholic choir. This will disappoint any fan of the film – before I watched theatre regularly, I chose not to see the last tour after finding out that the stage adaptation did not use the songs from the film – but upon watching the show, I didn’t miss them! Sure, I would have preferred it if they were included, but they’re replaced with phenomenal show numbers that make you quickly forget the originals.

Every song in the show is good. There are a couple that start off a little bland – those sang by the two male leads – but even they suddenly transform into dazzling dance numbers. The musical doesn’t give you chance to breathe – we get a sense of what it’s like being Deloris!

I cannot fault anything about this production. It’s different to previous productions, but the creative changes all work wonderfully – e.g. the acclaimed decision to age Deloris up a little, after previously having her played by young women.

I don’t know if Heaven exists, but this musical is the closest we’re gonna get to it before we die and find out (or not)!

Jessica Hamilton

Sparkles, sinners and saints! Sister Act exceeded expectations and delighted the crowd. The 1993 film, starring Whoopie Goldberg, is a tough act to follow, but the production proved a serious competitor, transferring the joy and absurdity of the much-loved film to the stage.

The plot unfolds in a similar way to the film. The aspiring pop-star Deloris becomes witness to a murder committed by gang-leader, and her ex-boyfriend, Curtis (Jeremy Secombe). Luckily, policeman Steady Eddie (Clive Rowe) is by her side to protect her from the vengeful criminal and hides her in a nearby convent under the pseudonym Sister Mary Clarence. Frustrated and far from fame, her only joy is teaching a group of tone-deaf nuns to sing. Under her unorthodox directions, the choir turn into extraordinaries, performing Christian disco music instead of their usual melancholic hymns.

If the point of the show was to present realistic nuns on stage, the performance may have been unconvincing. Though I would like to, I’m yet to see twerking and gyrating nuns. But searching for truth in this fantastic production would have missed the point. The audience enjoyed the show for what it was: two hours of laughter and childlike joy. As soon as Deloris escaped into the convent, the audience followed.

The star-studded cast contributed to the success of the show. Sandra Marvin was perfectly casted as Deloris, her confidence carried in character, and her vocals were breathtaking. Keala Settle was unsurprisingly splendid as Sister Mary Patrick, Lesley Joseph was hilarious as the funky Sister Mary Lazarus, and Clive Rowe excelled at playing the the wholesome “Steady Eddie” – but the standout performance came from Lizzie Bea as the shy Sister Mary Robert.

And, of course, Jennifer Saunders as the strict Mother Superior did not disappoint. Shifting her comedy expertise on to this devoted nun, a simple eyebrow raise was enough for the audience to burst into laughter. Her character was a good mix of serious and silly, her timing was perfect, and her delivery excellent. She was Absolutely Fabulous

But my favourite performance of the night was by the three Bee Gee-esque gang members singing in pre-pubescent voices, fancying themselves attractive enough to seduce a celibate group of nuns. This hilariously vain performance even received a standing ovation from one overly enthusiastic audience member.

Second to that was the end scene: the nuns ditched their penguin coloured garments for sparkly robes, modest, yet eccentric. It ended the night on a high note.

The glamorous Deloris attracted the attention of many men, including Steady Eddie, Curtis, and most-likely a few audience members. But rather than focusing on romantic love to ‘save’ her, Deloris found herself through sisterhood. Despite their differences, they learnt to love and protect each other. When faced with danger, even the initially reluctant Mother Superior was willing to sacrifice herself for her new friend. the power of sisterhood was clear.

It was also cathartic to watch Deloris transforms from a dependant and unsure party girl into a woman sure of who she wants. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person thrilled as she walked on stage in the fur coat she’s always wanted.

As our fabulous protagonist would say, this show is filled with “glitz, glamour and gay boys” – it’s certainly not one to miss!

Sister Act plays at Palace Theatre Manchester until 9th July. It then has a residency at Eventim Apollo London from 19th July until 28th August, before taking a slight summer break. The UK and Ireland tour then resumes at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on 20th September and is currently running until late January 2024 (yes, 2024, not 2023) – with even more dates to be announced soon!

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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