Once a Catholic first made it on to the Royal Court stage in 1979. Now, thanks to a co-production with London’s Tricycle Theatre and the directorial hand of Kathy ‘Kevin and Perry’ Burke, it’s back once more.
Times, obviously, have changed, and although Mary O’Malley’s affectionate comedy about a trio of 1950s schoolgirls and their education – from the boys, as well as the nuns – is met with much recognition, there’s also plenty of poignancy.
There’s not a Scouse accent in earshot in this production – what a change that makes – but local audiences will certainly recognise the Irish Catholic influence on the girls (all named Mary, natch). Once a Catholic tells the story of plain, unworldly Mary Mooney (Molly Logan, uncannily, and probably not inadvertently channeling a young Kathy Burke), muddling her way through secondary school alongside academic Mary Gallagher (Katherine Rose Morley) and glamorous Mary McGinty (Amy Morgan).
The play runs at some length, and the first act meanders about as the girls go about their lessons with nutty form tutor Mother Peter (a great turn from Cecilia Noble) and cantankerous, Mikado-fixated music teacher Mr Emmanuelli (Richard Bremmer); the near hysterically devout Mother Basil (Clare Cathcart) rules with an iron fist.
It is not until shortly before the end of the first act that any discernible plot becomes clear, and wheels are set in motion for a showdown when innocent Mary Mooney is taken advantage of by Mary McGinty’s ratbag boyfriend Derek (a hilarious Calum Callaghan).
Paul Wills’s gaudy set is almost straight out of Sister Act the Musical, but looks great, twinned with familiar kitschy details like the Green Lady when the action moves from the school to home.
Our trio of Marys are superb – all certainly ones to watch in future – but the soap opera of the plot is nothing compared to the bigger picture. It’s not simply St Trinian’s-style japes in Once a Catholic; O’Malley deftly highlights the very damaging impact a religious education can have on young minds.
Once a Catholic is on at the Royal Court until February 8.