‘Nunsense’ was sensational.
It was 1985 when Dan Goggin’s ‘Nunsense’ first hit the stage, and while some may think the productions jokes may be a bit stale in 2019, Redcliffe Musical Theatre’s latest production has decidedly proved that wrong.
The musical follows five nuns putting on a vaudeville styled show, as they need to raise funds to bury their fellow sisters killed by food poisoning accident. The content is hilarious farcical, and Redcliffe Musical Theatre’s collective has had a fun time playing with this charming rendition, thanks to its cast of very talented women.
Affectionately dubbed RMT, the theatre group is housed in its own space, ‘Theatre 102’, in Redcliffe. The tin shed transformed into a fantastic little cabaret venue with a full proscenium stage, technical rig, courtyard and bar. Cheese platters were available to take inside with a great variety of items and the troupe successfully created a buzz in the air.
Upon entering the theatre, the scene was set superbly through lighting and sound. It was intentionally confusing to see a set that featured a large poster shouting ‘Grease!’, a Rydell High banner, red and white pom-poms and a picture of the Greased Lightning car. While audiences members may have thought they had turned up for the wrong show, thankfully, Reverend Mother (played by Trish Dearness) soon cleared that up in the opening of the show. Within the story, the nuns use the same hall as the local school, who were producing the well-known musical at the same time. It was a clever trick, further amplified by tunes from ‘Grease’s soundtrack and pop songs from the 1950s, that provided fun energy as the audience chatted and enjoyed their snacks.
When the show started, three of the sisters entered through the audience, greeting everyone warmly as they made their way to the stage. Introductions were made, the purpose of the show explained, and then they were off, singing and dancing their way through their stories for the next two hours.
Director Jean Bowra has cast the show superbly, working with five very talented women to bring warmth, charm and sincerity to the Little Sisters of Hoboken. The whole performance was smooth, well-rehearsed, and felt extremely natural, which can be a challenge for these types of shows. The simple set, which contained a large stained-glass window, long church pew and small counter with stools (all adorned with Rydell High paraphernalia), was used effectively and with variety throughout the production.
‘Nunsense’ was performed completely with backing tracks and was surprisingly well-timed to fit rubato singing and dialogue. In a small space, the use of microphones was very well managed, giving just enough support to the strong vocal work of the performers. There were moments when volumes were out of balance, but the skilled sound designer and operator, Jonathan Moss, speedily rectified these issues. The lighting design was generally effective, with little variation from a fully-lit stage. The few moments of variation were purposefully and effectively employed, particularly during the soulful ballad performed by Sister Robert Anne (played by Giulia Bortolanza) with back up singers in Act 2.
The use of moving spotlights across the stage did cause a few dim-lit spots but this was a very small flaw in the overall successful production. Costumes were also simple, as actors spent the whole production in their habits, with effective props and accessories throughout.
The highlight of the entire show came from the performances of the five women in this ensemble cast. Trish Dearness (as Reverend Mother), Helen Drew (as Sister Mary Hubert), Giulia Bortolanza (as Sister Robert Anne), Erin Dunstan (as Sister Mary Amnesia) and Caitlin Archer (as Sister Mary Leo) were a powerhouse team with vocal prowess, comic timing, and endearing characterisation. They were a tight-knit unit that had each other’s backs and the audience couldn’t help but want their characters to succeed.
Leading from the front, Trish Dearness as the Reverend Mother skilfully balanced her stern portrayal with comedy. Her energy was infectious and she vocally packed a punch. The highlight was at the end of Act 1 when the Reverend accidentally gets high. Dearness’ physicality and lightning-quick thought changes were hilarious and we have to wonder how much was improvised versus rehearsed. Backing her up as “No. 2” was Helen Drew as Sister Mary Hubert, mistress of the novices. Drew’s performance was heartwarming; her smile and reactions to the other sisters were always connected and genuine. She held her own with strong, clean vocals and comedic timing. On top of this, Drew also doubled as the Musical Director for the production and full credit to her work in developing some stunning harmonies and balance within the ensemble.
Also taking on a dual production role was Giulia Bortolanza as the Choreographer and in the acting role of Sister Robert Anne. Bortolanza did a lovely job of taking on the street-wise sister who just wants to be a star and she demonstrated a strong belt at key points in her songs. There were a few moments where she could have employed her lower register more, as we lost some notes and diction in favour of soft volume and expression. However, her choreography was on point, which is difficult when your dancers are all dressed in reasonably constricting habits. Bortolanza worked seamlessly with the other characters, music genres, set and abilities of performers. In the role of ballet-dancing Sister Mary Leo, Caitlin Archer was beautifully sweet and sincere. She brought a delightful naivety to the ensemble and held her own vocally throughout the production.
If there was to be a standout in this stunning collection of performers, it was Erin Dunstan as Sister Mary Amnesia. The immeasurably sweet character was often a favourite of audiences, and Dunstan portrayed her marvellously. The forgetful nun, who doesn’t know who she is after being hit on the head by a crucifix, has an alter-ego puppet (called Sister Mary Annette) that says all the things a good nun shouldn’t. Dunstan performed this ‘duet’ with stunning ease, switching between classical soprano and cockney busker flawlessly. To then return in Act 2 with a Country and Western song, where she finally remembers who she is, and present a commanding performance in such a different genre was astounding. To top off her incredible vocal abilities and characterisation was adorable and a delight to watch.
‘Nunsense’ at Redcliffe Musical Theatre was an immensely enjoyable production and heavenly in all the right ways. While the storyline is a touch absurd and won’t change your life, the production guarantees a darn good time for a few hours. And honestly, sometimes that’s all we need.
‘Nunsense’ plays at Theatre 102 in Redcliffe until Sunday, 10 November 2019. Tickets are available via Redcliffe Musical Theatres Website.