REVIEW: York Light Opera Company in Nunsense: The Mega-Musical!, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until July 6 *** ½

Let us pray…for laughs: The Little Sisters of Hoboken and Ben Wood’s Brother Timothy in York Light Opera Company’s Nunsense: The Mega-Musical! Picture: Matthew Kitchen

BLACK box theatre. Thick walls. No air conditioning, beyond a smattering of cooling fans. Then add nuns’ habits and wimples and the hottest night of the year.

No wonder, in the last breaths of her climactic big number, Clare Meadley’s Sister Mary Hubert suddenly exclaimed: “God it’s hot in here.”

The stultifying heat made the opening joke of Act 2 even more apt. “How do you make holy water?” “Boil the hell out of it!”. Theatre@41 boiled the hell out of us all, actors, Martin Lay’s band up high on the mezzanine level, and audience members alike, some improvising impromptu fans from programmes.

Good news – if not for sun worshippers – lies in the weather forecast. Lower temperatures for the rest of this week, even lower next week. Hallelujah, as the Little Sisters of Hoboken might well sing.

Or at least the last 12 still standing – and dancing, singing, acting, and telling jokes, too – after Sister Julia, Child of God’s dodgy Vichyssoise put paid to 52 of the sisters in a culinary catastrophe. Forty-eight have been buried but, heaven forbid, Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Joy Warner) has chucked money at buying a plasma TV, leaving the final four in limbo in the convent freezer.

Now the Little Sisters must stage a revue and talent show to raise the necessary funds, taking over the set for the 8th grade’s production of Grease at the neighbouring Mount St Helen’s School, James Dean & Marilyn Monroe posters, Fifties’ jukebox et al.

Cue the out-of-touch Reverend Mother mistakenly thinking the high-school musical was called Vaseline, but otherwise Grease references are not milked in Dan Goggin’s 1985 off-Broadway musical comedy.

Inspired by attending a school run by the Marywood Dominican Sisters that first spawned his line of greetings cards of a nun’s funny quips, Nunsense grew from a cabaret show into a full-scale production and later the Mega-Musical version with an expanded cast, more characters and more comic mayhem that Neil Wood is directing for York Light. In a nutshell, more fun per nun.

See Emily play: Emily Rockliff’s scene-stealing Sister Robert Anne in Nunsense: The Mega-Musical!. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

No nun pun is knowingly resisted by Goggin, from the song title Nunsense Is Habit Forming to the sisters’ vow that “on our way to heaven, we’re here to make some hell”, all in the cause of proving that “nuns can be fun”.

Five principal nuns each have a story to tell in both song and tale, enabling nuns and York Light alike to parade “triple threat” skills, whether Emma Craggs-Swainston’s Sister Mary Leo’s ballet dancing on point, or Emily Rockliff’s restless Sister Robert Anne, desperate to outgrow her “understudy” role, the convent equivalent of rising from chorus line to lead, as she parades her gift for mimicry with her wimple.

Kathryn Addison has fun with Sister Julia’s life-endangering cooking, Warner’s Reverend Mother maximises the comedy pratfalls in inhaling a mind-altering substance, and best of all is Annabel van Griethuysen’s forgetful but unforgettable Sister Mary Amnesia, parading her operatic voice, comic timing in eye contact and vocal delivery, even hammy ventriloquism with grouchy nun puppet “Maryonette”, all topped off by a country cowgirl song.

The humour is broad in range and style, occasionally smutty, sometimes slapstick, never subtle, and Goggin’s songs are similarly varied, from gospel to Andrews Sisters’ close harmonies, familiar musical theatre tropes to an ensemble tap-dancing dazzler, choreographed joyously by Rachel Whitehead.

Wood’s cast adheres wholly – and holy – to Goggin’s advice to “play nuns trying to be showgirls and not the other way round”, to the betterment of the show’s hearty comedy.

For added entertainment, the role of Father Virgil will be played in The Play What I Wrote guest turn tradition by a different actor at each performance. First up was Richard Bayton, setting the bar high in his good-natured cameo.

After The Sound Of Music and Sister Act The Musical, once more nuns are making a habit of entertaining in song and dance and unguarded humour in Nunsense. And that habit is catching: even stage manager Sarah Craggs is in nun’s clothes.

York Light Opera Company in Nunsense: The Mega-Musical!, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, running until July 6, 7.30pm (except June 30, July 1 and July 6); 3pm, June 29 and 30 and July 6.  Box office: