Songs, Sex and Suspicious parents

On top of running the Royal Court in London, Vicky Featherstone is back with the National Theatre of Scotland for the summer to direct a play about wild teenage girls. Tim Bano talks to her about responsibility and recklessness

feature | Read in About 7 minutes
Published 31 Jul 2015

“We all have a feeling or memory of that day, the last day before the responsibility of adulthood kicks in. A time when nothing else mattered apart from you and your friends.” Vicky Featherstone is explaining what drew her to Alan Warner’s cult novel The Sopranos, just before she begins directing its stage adaptation, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.

Over the last decade, that responsibility of adulthood seems to have kicked hard at Featherstone. From 2006-12 she was the first artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, scoring some hefty hits with Black Watch and Let the Right One In. And since 2013 she’s been running one of the country’s most important homes for new writing, London’s Royal Court. After two and a half years down south, Our Ladies is a brief homecoming for Featherstone as she returns to NTS for the summer.

The play, with lots of music and a live band (though Featherstone insists it isn’t a musical) is based on Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos – not the TV gangsters, but a Catholic girls’ school choir from Oban who go on a jolly to Edinburgh for a singing competition. It’s been adapted by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, and he and Featherstone have been working on it for a while.

“He said, ‘I’ve always loved the book, have you ever thought about adapting it for the stage?’ I said, 'We’ve thought about it loads.' That’s years ago now.” Running the Royal Court didn’t prevent Featherstone from seeing the project through to completion; her NTS successor Laurie Sansom went along to a workshop and agreed to do the show under the National Theatre of Scotland banner.

It must be strange to return to the company she built and not be in charge. “If I didn’t do this job at the Royal Court, it might. But I am fully employed, emotionally and intellectually. If I’m really honest it feels like a holiday.”

With the weight of all its alumni, every show at the Royal Court comes with expectations; audiences and critics thinking they know what’s required of their theatre. Featherstone has, consciously or not, bucked against that. No show under her tenure has received universal acclaim, but that can’t be the only measure of success. A more useful barometer is the diversity of opinion that almost every show has generated. Yet responsibility for the overarching vision of the theatre falls to Featherstone as artistic director, and it’s something that she sounds glad not to have to contemplate with this show.

“It’s delightful not having to take any responsibility apart from for the play.” There’s that word again – ‘responsibility’. For writers and directors, responsibility doesn’t just come from the burdens in their private lives, but also in their art. Artists have to take responsibility for what they show on stage and the way they show it, and in those terms Warner’s novel deals with some heavygoing themes: there’s pregnancy, cancer, sex… it’s something of a party-filled romp through adolescence. But, according to Featherstone, “the characters aren’t judged in any way. They’re wilful and reckless and naughty and do insane things, and there’s a real power around that, especially for teenage girls."

There’s rising passion in Featherstone’s voice as she extols the characters in Our Ladies. Responsibility for the play’s themes doesn’t come from moralising or criticising. Instead, Warner—and Hall’s adaptation—celebrate the freedom of these girls, living blissfully in the mid-nineties, “with no sense of doom” and free from the worries of social media.

“We have such a judgmental media representing a very particular morality—what they think is the British morality—with so much hypocrisy behind that.” Featherstone clearly feels strongly about these girls. “There’s a power in them that needs to be celebrated and respected, not denigrated and judged.”

I’m trying to remember my ‘last day before adulthood’. It wasn’t particularly wild, I think. A picnic in a sunny park just before the end of university, surrounded by close friends. Feeling that I could never know people better and that I would never know better people. It wasn’t wild, but it was blissful. Life since then has been a process of slowly accruing responsibility and frequently taking blame.

It’s tempting to agree with Featherstone as she talks about the differences between generations: “We were so much more badly behaved, genuinely, and the fact that we’ve criticised young people so much, it’s horrific really.” But there’s the risk of falling prey to that golden age delusion, imagining that the past was a better, easier, happier time. It probably wasn’t. 

Anyway, generational respect has to cut both ways. We start to talk about the wave of ‘trashy’ TV programmes like Ibiza Uncovered and Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. I baulk at the young people on them, ashamed to have them represent my generation, but Featherstone assesses them more kindly. “There’s a real energy in them that we haven’t harnessed in any other way.” Maybe that’s true. Maybe those programmes cut to the heart of what Our Ladies is representing, these girls on that one perfect day. 

Her programming at the Royal Court mostly defies predictability and homogeneity – “they have to think that I could put anything on” – but one of the strands that has wound its way through several productions is this desire to challenge our sense of morality. “I’m a liberal person who quite smugly thinks I know what I think about the world, and if I can sit in an auditorium and my perspective has shifted, that’s really extraordinary for me.”

Featherstone wants her audiences to feel uncomfortable. “It’s not necessarily that you’re watching someone stick a fork up someone’s arse, but exactly that thing where the person you thought you were is not the same when you’re watching it.” There was The Nether, which tackled online paedophilia, and Teh Internet is Serious Business, humanising the hacktivists behind the Anonymous collective. Our Ladies taps into something similar: that binge-drinking teenagers deserve our attention, maybe even our admiration. And they certainly deserve sympathy.

“What is the future for these girls? There’s a tension, and I think it’s such a British thing, between aspiration and acceptance. The power of their aspiration and level of wanting to live is the highest it could possibly be and yet you know they will accept a life that is not the best it can be after that day. That is so tough, it’s so tragic.”

And what about Featherstone? Will life after the production heads off on tour be a more carefree affair, influenced by the freedom and the fun of the girls of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour? Not a chance. “I’ll be shackled to my desk back at the Royal Court after six weeks in Scotland.” Can't say more responsible than that. 

Your show in five words

 Raw, ebullient, dirty, heartfelt, raucous 

Why should audiences see it
Six brilliant women - singing, giving it large, empowered and owning their story

Your Fringe top tips
Swallow by the brilliant Stef Smith, don’t sleep ‘til September, the Book Festival