Sister Act – HMP Bronzefield and Pimlico Opera

UnknownSister Act is performed by the prisoners of HMP Bronzefield and Pimlico Opera at Bronzefield Prison in Ashford, Surrey, until 9 March.

Forget The Book of Mormon and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory –the musical event of the year, and any year, is taking place in a prison gymnasium not far from Heathrow.

People who had never seen the professionals of Pimlico Opera working alongside hardened criminals, some of them perhaps even murderers, and achieving what can only be described as a miracle, emerged from HMP Bronzefield unable to disguise their tears and open-mouthed in amazement.

For others who had been before, the feeling of privilege at being present at something beyond special, that is humbling, life-enhancing, yes even life-changing, will never alter.

Sister Act, with music by Alan Menken and words by Glenn Slater, may have had a tad more polish with Patina Miller and Sheila Hancock doing the main parts in its 2009–10 West End run at the Palladium, but it won’t have made the audience laugh and cry any more or sent them out into a winter afternoon with more of a song in their hearts.

What Pimlico, through director Michael Moody, conductor Toby Purser and choreographers Paul Chantry and Rae Piper, have teased out of the 17 law-breaker performers, some of whom will never have been in a theatre before, is quite extraordinary.

Although the eight Pimlico professionals, headed by Jocasta Almgill, rarely offstage in the marathon part of night-club singer Doloris, are excellent – Deryck Hayman a particular hoot as the Monsignor, Deon Adams sings Eddie’s ballads beautifully and Elizabeth Elvin is the strait-laced Mother Superior who finally learns how to let her hair down – the show is not really about them.

It is Gholda (surnames and pictures of prisoners not allowed), in the sizeable part of Sister Mary Roberts, who sets everyone in the audience talking with a singing voice many a professional would kill for. Painfully shy to start with as the part demands, her growing relationship with the wild Doloris is the nub of the piece and the pair work together sensationally.

Musical as a child, Gholda gave up the piano and guitar at 11 when her father died and says in the programme that “like Doloris, I had a dream to be big but don’t we all! It’s after reality comes crashing down on us and what we do with those dreams that matters”.

Other hefty singing parts are entrusted to Temitayo (Sister Mary Patrick), Uchenna (Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours) and 59-year-old grandmother Anne (Sister Mary Theresa), who tells us that “prior to my incarceration in this salubrous establishment” she worked as an accountant for a multi-national Japanese company. Boy, do they carry them off with relish!

Not all the singing and dancing is top-of-the-range but perfection isn’t what this is about (although this is a seriously professional production) and the ensemble works joyously, carrying a full house along with their enthusiasm for the catchy numbers and hectic routines.

The split-level set, by Halla Groves-Raines (also responsible for the costumes), and lighting by Warren Letton, could hardly be improved upon and the 13-piece band plays up a storm with Menken’s tuneful score.

This 20th Pimlico initiative, the brainchild of visionary Wasfi Kani and aimed at helping criminals realise their self-worth and learn how to play for the same side through musical theatre, began with Sweeney Todd at Wormwood Scrubs in 1991 and, although I have seen only a quarter of them, I doubt whether there has been a better production.

If I could buy every reader a ticket, I’d happily do so as it is an experience mere words cannot even begin to convey. Unforgettable and brilliant, theatre has never been so relevant or so worthwhile.

There are still tickets for all remaining performances, so give yourself a treat and head to www.pimlicoopera.co.uk for details.

Jeremy Chapman

Jeremy Chapman’s comprehensive feature on Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons across the UK is published in Issue 5 of Musical Theatre Reviewwww.tinyurl.com/pjny42z

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