Nunsense A-Men! continues at the Landor Theatre, London until 28 July.
Dan Goggin’s original Off-Broadway hit, Nunsense, is possibly the only musical ever to have started life as a series of comedy greeting cards. After it grew from a cabaret night into a full-blooded musical, the long-running Off-Broadway show spawned several sequels, before the original version was recast with an all-male cast and renamed Nunsense A-Men!
Despite the gender reversal, the story remains just the same, and just as silly. An accidentally poisoned soup has killed most of the Sisters of Hoboken, and four of the surviving convent members are putting on a charity cabaret to raise the funds to bury the last of the dead nuns, who are currently clogging up the deep freeze. And so begins an evening of comedic songs which manages to overcome the flimsy premise due to spirited performances that are determined to make the best of the paper-thin material.
Tim McArthur has made a name for himself on the fringe cabaret circuit with his nun persona, Sister Mary McArthur, so his casting as the Mother Superior comes as no surprise. What is disappointing is that his is by far the least effective role, with the cabaret persona coming into conflict with the requirements of performing a tightly-scripted character that must interact with others.
It does at least help the audience sympathise with the Mother Superior’s second in command, Sister Mary Hubert (the straightest – and most effective – performance of the evening by Paul Brangan) whose sense of thwarted ambition is one of many storylines that occasionally threaten to develop into actual plot before being forgotten and giving way to another number. And it is in the musical numbers that McArthur’s strengths come to the fore, be it in the ensemble numbers or in the duet with Brangan, ‘Just a Coupl’a Sisters’, which opens Act II.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, it’s the three supporting nuns who get the most engaging personalities and the biggest laughs. David Kristopher-Brown’s Sister Mary Leo, who had her own ambitions to be a ballet dancer, barrel-rolls his way through a Tchaikovsky Swan Lake pastiche – albeit one that is less Black Swan, more Blue Nun.
Sister Mary Amnesia, whose lack of memory and forgetfulness is far less funny than Goggin’s script suggests, becomes a simple-minded Southern belle in the capable hands of Josh Rochford. But the show gives the best moments, the best numbers and the best lines to the Broadway-obsessed Sister Mary Robert, and Alastair Knights takes full advantage. Stealing ensemble scenes with gay abandon, it is his solo numbers – and his wimple-based impressions – which will remain in the memory.
Coupled with Phillip Aidan’s choreography and Michael Webborn’s assured accompaniment, director Robert McWhir has ensured that while Nunsense A-Men! is never likely to be as big a hit in London as it was Off-Broadway, it nevertheless entertains throughout.