I don’t often venture to Bembridge, but when you’re invited by a group of Nuns, you kinda have to (or risk eternal damnation of your immortal soul.)
From the moment you entered Bembridge Village Hall, all illusion that you were going to watch a scripted play was thrown out of the window. From the friar-usher dispensing “Holy Water” – commonly referred to as sanitiser where I’m from – to the band and prompt sporting Dog Collars atop their Theatre Blacks; Nunsense by Bembridge Little Theatre Club (BLTC) made you instantly feel like you were within the show, rather than watching from afar.
As with many shows at the moment, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Nunsense had been, pardon the pun, plagued with COVID-19 related absences. One member of the cast told me that the first rehearsals with the whole cast present were only a few weeks before curtain up! Despite these bouts of self isolation during rehearsals and show week, the company put together a strong show which was well received by all its audiences.
I always get a slight sense of trepidation when watching am-dram if the first performer on stage starts using a foreign accent, but I left the show pleasantly surprised that the majority of the cast’s American accents only dropped on a few of the more difficult words and songs. I’ll forgive the fact that none of them sounded like they came from Hoboken as no one actually wants to hear a New Jersey accent for nearly two hours.
The setting of a village hall worked perfectly for the production. The story begins with the reveal that whilst we, the audience, may be watching a show, that show is in fact a fundraiser for the Little Sisters of Hoboken so they can bury four of their fellow nuns. Due to an ill prepared vichyssoise (pronounced vishy-swar), the nuns actually lost fifty-two of their sisters and for reasons only known to the writers of the show, the Mother Superior decided to buy a DVD player with what she thought was the leftover cash. This means that there are four nuns still on ice – that is, stuffed into the Mount St Helen’s School freezer, and we are here to attend a “talent show” to aid in their funeral costs. Oh and to make matters worse, the local health inspector is on their way for a surprise inspection.
As text material goes, I’ll admit I’m not a fan, but… Luckily the BLTC kept me interested, smiling and laughing throughout the show. The characterisation of all the performers was effortless, you could see that each member of the cast was loving the production. Particular note goes to Sister Mary Amnesia, played by Hanna Emily Nixon, and Sister Mary Leo, played by John Abraham. Their well-rounded performances kept us all in good spirits and the underlying subplot of the actual identity of Sister Mary Amnesia came to a beautiful reveal at the end. Another highlight of talent was the pre-interval debacle involving the Reverend Mother, Libby Pike, and a suspicious smelling container, which was joyous to watch. Libby’s movements and contagious laughter didn’t feel forced or fake, something so easy to slip into when acting drunk or, as in this case, high. The casting choice of Sister Mary Hubert, Jane Robert, was beautiful as a company to Libby, with the two riffing off each other and Jane’s stature allowing for some very funny moments.
There must be something in the water on the most easterly side of the Island as the singing standard was pleasantly high. Bryony Bishop’s range in the song “So You Want to be a Nun” was strong, bouncing effortlessly between a choir singer’s soprano and the comedic deeper tones of her duet partner, her hand (it must be noted here that this song was sung between Sister Robert Anne and a puppet.) One must also mention here another strong voice, albeit the absence of it. Rob Bingham unfortunately was unable to perform for the entire run of the show, being struck down with COVID-19 days before the opening night. Luckily the cast pulled together and covered brilliantly. His songs were picked up by John and Hanna and had it not been for Rob’s name next to them in the programme, there was no way to tell that anything had changed. Both performers knew the songs and choreography perfectly, I imagine a couple of extra rehearsals with the Musical Director, Stephen Burton, and Choreographer, Ruth Anderson, were called just to shore things up. Rob’s physical gap in the show was plugged by the director Andrew Wilson-Jenner with a small note slipped into each programme to tell us that “the role of Sister Mary Sunshine (Rob) would be played by Sister Mary Scary (Andrew).”
As mentioned at the start of this review, the show started the moment you stepped into the venue, so everyone in the production, including the Front of House and band, all wore standard religious garb so as not to break the habit *ba dum tish*. This black and white base coat of the cast allowed the set, props and costume to be vivid and colourful, and helped the song “Clean out the Freezer” really stand out. With bright yellow gloves on, on top of a sea of black clothed bodies, Ruth’s choreography was crisp and clean, very effective in this particular number when all you’re focusing on are hands!
All in all, for this reviewer it was the cast and crew that made this production of Nunsense the great show that it was. The enjoyment of everyone involved shone through and after the notable absence of theatre last year, the fact that this is BLTC’s third production of the year really is a testament to the quality of the team they have putting the shows together.
Now that I know the quality that is involved, hopefully my next visit to the Bembridge Little Theatre Club will be of my own free will to see another entertaining show, and not to save my eternal life from the risk of condemnation to hell.
Reviewed by Nick Weightman