Beverley Knight’s storming voice and personality, and some stunning group numbers, just about keep this expensive but rickety musical buoyant. An adaptation of the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film about a gangster’s girlfriend hiding out in a convent, teaching music to and learning sisterhood from a choir of nuns, the show has warmth, several joyous moments and flashes of wit. But Bill Buckhurst’s production is the result of multiple compromises beneath the happy-clappy surface glitz.
Although the adaptation is set in 1977, Alan Menken’s score is only occasionally soulful and never funky. It has four or five belting anthems – including Knight’s Fabulous, Baby! and the ensemble crowd-pleaser Take Me To Heaven – but also a lot of easy-listening or pop-patter padding. Jennifer Saunders as a wintry, talk-singing Mother Superior, and a host of fine musical performers, are underused.
The adaptation trades on nostalgia for the film but dispenses with its soundtrack, including the signature reworking of Motown classic My Guy as My God – a more subtle expression of the core themes anything on offer in the stage version. The plot is reduced to a skeletal framework on which to hang musical or comic set pieces, with Deloris’s boyfriend and his cronies, and her putative cop sweetheart Eddie (the great Clive Rowe), turned into panto stooges.
The crooks get a song, Lady in a Long Black Dress, about how they’d seduce a nun. Like several numbers here, it’s funny in isolation but makes absolutely no sense in context. “The world is your oyster when you’re locked in a cloister,” sing the nuns: a superficially pleasing rhyme that means nothing. The casting seems to have been done by algorithm to hit the widest demographic; Knight, Saunders, Broadway trouper Keala Settle and Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph.
Of course, the show was originally planned for a short, glitzy run in 2020 with Whoopi Goldberg taking the lead role of Deloris again, 30 years on, at the age of 64, therefore capitalising on both familiarity and novelty. This big barn of a concert venue offered the most favourable return, even though it’s not conducive to inventive stage sets or atmosphere. Designer Morgan Large does his best with a series of stained-glass frames, but the nuns inevitably look like a bunch of excitable penguins.
We can only speculate whether Goldberg would have been a triumph or a car crash. So, let’s thank God - or whoever - for Beverley Knight, whose vocal power and sassy stage presence lift a hodgepodge of a musical into something much brighter. Saunders’s dry, acerbic head nun is a useful counterbalance to Knight’s ebullience, even if she’s not used here to best advantage. And Settle, Rowe and Lizzie Bea as doubting young postulant Sister Mary Robert all give stunning vocal performances that transcend the limits of the characters they are given. I know: faint praise.