Friday, 29 November 2013

Theatre review: Once a Catholic

The canteen at my work, like every canteen in the country as far as I can tell, always has fish and chips on a Friday; a sign that, although England hasn't been a Catholic country since Henry VIII found himself with more wives than the legal limit, the religion's influence is still felt in all kinds of unexpected places. One place you wouldn't be too surprised to find a supply of Catholic guilt is in a convent school in 1957 Willesden, the setting for Mary J. O'Malley's Once a Catholic. Kathy Burke revives the story of Mary Mooney, Mary Gallagher and Mary McGinty, three girls going into their O'level year at Our Lady of Fatima, and trying to reconcile the daily diet of fire and brimstone dished out by the terrifying nuns, with the approaching 1960s in the outside world and their own growing sexualities. A strong cast goes some way to bringing O'Malley's once-outrageous comedy into the 21st century, although it's not an entirely successful enterprise.

Burke has more or less retired from acting in favour of directing, but here she's found her own Mini-Me in Molly Logan, who both looks like her and has something of her performance style, as the central figure of Mary Mooney. Possibly the most genuinely religious of the trio, she's actually the most disliked by the nuns, her ignorance about matters of the flesh leading her to ask innocent questions about the euphemism-filled teaching that her teachers interpret as attempts to embarrass them.


Logan is a convincingly baffled Mooney, flanked by strong performances by Amy Morgan as bad girl McGinty, and Katherine Rose Morley as the less-innocent-than-she-looks teacher's pet Gallagher. Mooney's sexual innocence also gets her in hot water when she can't afford to join the others on a pilgrimage and, left behind, is tempted back to his flat by McGinty's teddy-boy boyfriend Derek (Calum Callaghan.) The girls' exploring of their sexuality also gives them a new insight into the celibate women who teach them, Cecilia Noble as the theatrical Mother Peter, and Clare Cathcart as the truly vicious Mother Basil.


At times Once a Catholic can be very funny - the girls' frequent run-ins with the nuns provide a lot of good comedy, and Oliver Coopersmith is hysterical in the small role of Gallagher's posh, acne-ridden boyfriend Cuthbert. But the play's terribly uneven. Its opening scenes of life in and around the school start to feel like sketches, taking far too long for the play to get going. And the energy is hampered by the staging - Paul Wills' set is gloriously tacky but does require numerous stage hands to lug furniture on and off in the frequent scene changes, breaking the show's flow.


Once a Catholic is still entertaining, but it does suffer from being a play that obviously has a serious point behind its silliness, but whose satirical bite, which caused walkouts when first staged in the '70s, has been dulled by time. Cuthbert's intention to join the priesthood specifically so he can ignore the celibacy and bed his parishioners is a sly little observation, but more than a little underwhelming now the Church's real skeletons are out of the closet. Moments of a slightly more recent aesthetic don't really work - the influence of Father Ted on the scenes with Sean Campion's Father Mullarkey is obvious and a bit out of place - and only serve to highlight how the play has dated. It's still fun, for the most part, but its once-radical comedy is now looking a bit cosy.

Once a Catholic by Mary J. O'Malley is booking until the 18th of January at the Tricycle Theatre, and from the 22nd of January to the 8th of February at the Royal Court Liverpool.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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