You know it makes Nunsense for York Light to keep it wimple in Dan Goggin’s unconventional musical at Theatre@41

Habit forming: Sarah Foster’s Sister Mary Brendan, back row, left, with, front row, from the left, Clare Meadley’s Sister Mary Hubert, Emily Rockliff’s Sister Robert Anne, Joy Warner’s Reverend Mother and Emma Craggs-Swainston’s Sister Mary Leo in a scene from Nunsense: The Mega-Musical!

NUNS, nuns and more nuns. Musicals love them, from The Sound Of Music to Sister Act and now Nunsense: The Mega-Musical!, York Light Opera Company’s summer show at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York.

Running from June 26 to July 6, the divine delights of Dan Goggin’s 1985 off-Broadway musical are being directed by Neil Wood with musical direction by Martin Lay.

“Get ready for a heavenly dose of laughter as we present a side-splitting extravaganza brimming with witty humour, toe-tapping tunes and heavenly hilarity, as well as in tap dancing, tightrope walking and ventriloquism” says Neil.

“Anyone expecting The Sound Of Music will be disappointed; anyone not expecting it will be overjoyed.”

In the wake of the unfortunate passing of four beloved sisters – now “chilling out in the freezer” after a “culinary catastrophe” involving Sister Julia’s dodgy Vichyssoise – the remaining Little Sisters of Hoboken find themselves in a sticky situation.

To raise funds for a proper burial – and perhaps a new cook! – the nuns must take centre stage for a riotous revue and talent show like no other, performed on the set of a school production of Grease that is being staged next door.

Building on the success of last June’s “riotous, rude and relevant” I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, York Light will stage a “mega-sized version” of Goggin’s show with an expanded cast, new characters and even more musical mayhem.

Neil Wood’s full cast for Nunsense : The Mega-Musical!, including late replacement Kathryn Addision, bottom row, second from left, and the ten Father Virgils

“It’s an absolute pleasure to return to York Light Opera Company to direct their summer show for the second year running,” says Neil. “Nunsense: The Mega-Musical is an exciting, hysterical and entertaining show and I’ve been lucky enough to cast 12 exceptionally talented actresses who encapsulate their various characters to perfection. It’s a wonderful show, which I’m sure audiences will adore.”

Among them will be Kathryn Addison, taking over from the indisposed Pascha Turnbull as Sister Julia, Child of God, at only five rehearsals’ notice.

One further cast hitch has required a novel solution, Neil reveals: “As with producing any show, you come across little hiccups, and our original Father Virgil [Matt Tapp] being sent to the Highlands a month before opening night was possibly the most extreme hiccup I’ve had to deal with as a director.

“So, what’s the solution?  Do you find one actor who can cover all ten shows at late notice? No! Instead, we’ve found ten actors who can do one night each with limited rehearsal!”

Inspiration came from comedy national treasures Eric and Ernie. “I got the idea having seen the guest actors in The Play What I Wrote, the show based on the life of Morecambe and Wise, and it’s worked exceptionally well!” says Neil.

“We had such a good response from the gentlemen of York Light Opera Company and within days I’d managed to cast all ten performances. It was difficult to get one replacement actor to do all the rehearsals and performances at short notice, and a lot easier to get ten to do one show each, saying ‘tell me when you can’t do it’ and then getting my Father Virgil spreadsheet sorted out by the end of the weekend!”

Among them will be York musical actor, York Theatre Royal box-office manager and 2016 Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Richard Bayton, soon to appear in Bright Light Musical Productions’ York premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.

Sing something wimple: Emily Rockliff’s Sister Robert Anne to the fore in a rehearsal for York Light’s Nunsense: The Mega-Musical!

“It’s not a huge part, but it’s vital,” says Neil. One that requires only one rehearsal, as Richard explains. “We’ve all been sent the ten pages that Father Virgil features in to learn the lines. Then, on the night I’ll turn up at 6pm to prepare for the 7.30pm start, getting into the inner, deep characterisation of what it means to be Father Virgil, sorting out the blocking on stage and finding out who I’m supposed to be flirting with!”

Neil is enjoying his first experience of Nunsense. “I remember that it came to the West End in my nipper days and thought, ‘well, that sounds an interesting show’,” he recalls. “But I’d never thought about it again until I was approached by the York Light committee to direct their summer show for the second time in a row after I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

“It’s an ideal contrast, a chance to have a totally different cast, with those 12 female roles. It started as a five-hander that’s now a much bigger ensemble show after Dan Goggin wrote more characters and more numbers, and he’s even done a version where you could add children, though we won’t be. “

Neil has even received advice via Goggin’s Facebook posts. “He signs all his posts as ‘Danny’, rather than ‘Dan’,” he says. “He’s advised the cast that they’re playing nuns trying to be showgirls and not the other way round, with ‘choreographed imperfections’ that go with that.”

He loves Goggin’s music too. “Sometimes, you come across a show and you think, ‘um, not sure’, but this one has a fantastic score:  there’s country music, Andrews Sisters’ close harmonies, gospel, traditional musical theatre songs, even a ballet routine and tap-dancing nuns!

“Rachel Whitehead has choreographed the ballet and the tap number, and the rest of it has come out of that twisted mind of mine! The lovely thing about doing it at Theatre@41 is that because it’s a smaller space, it’s intimate. There’s no ‘fourth wall’ in the show but there is interaction with the audience because it’s that sort of show.”

Working alongside Neil is assistant director Sarah Foster, from Missouri, USA, who is in the third year of her PhD studies at the University of York.

Annabel van Griethuysen’s Sister Mary Amnesia, left, Emma Craggs-Swainston and Emily Rockliff’s Sister Robert Anne in the rehearsal room

“I saw the show at the theatre where I was directing with a company in Springfields, in the middle of nowhere! One of the 12 to 15 Springfields that The Simpsons never reveal exactly where they’re from,” says Sarah, who has helped the York Light cast to work on their American accents, just as she did for York Musical Theatre Company’s The Wizard Of Oz in May.

“I first saw the five-hander and I remember I was struck by just how genuine the show was; how funny it was; the variety of the nuns’ different stories and the variety of the songs. I wasn’t expecting the tap number in the middle!”

Sarah was involved with Springfield Little Theatre for eight years, mostly performing in musical theatre, before taking up her PhD studies in How the Arts Influenced Climate Change and Sustainability Education.

She finds time to maintain her theatrical involvement, whether as production assistant on York Light’s February production of The Little Mermaid at York Theatre Royal or now playing Sister Mary Brendan.

“She’s one of the teachers at the school connected to the convent,” she says of her role. “She’s the drama teacher who’s putting on the production of Grease.”

Summing up the show, Neil says: “The humour is bonkers with elements of farce, but not a Brian Rix or Feydeau farce. The humour comes from the five principal nuns’ stories unravelling as the Mother Superior tries to hold it all together, not always with successfully!”

“Their personalities keep bursting through, making it more difficult for the Mother Superior to control them,” adds Sarah.

Clare Meadley’s Sister Mary Hubert, front, and Sarah Foster’s Sister Mary Brendan, left, in rehehearsal for the Little Sisters of Hoboken’s fund-raising revue

Nunsense suits the “triple threat” talents of York Light, says Neil. “It needs good operatic singing, country & western belts too, good dancers and good actors, and that’s the joy of working with York Light. There are so many talents you can go to.

“The show is great family entertainment, with a couple of jokes that might go over young heads. Goggin knew what he wanted, and it’s not often you get a script that is so detailed and so full of possibilities to make it funny.”

“The comedic timing is really well thought out,” says Sarah. “And I’m also going to enjoy this show so much because it’s interactive, with conversations with the audience.”

Neil rejoins: “The fourth string to the director’s bow is being able to choreograph those laughs. I love to look for those moments.”

He highlights the comedic impact of a nun’s attire: the habit and wimple. “For the actors, the wimple absolutely focuses the importance of facial expression, but not to go over the top because expressions are magnified by the wimple’s shape,” he says.

“The habit limits the possibilities of the choreography because it restricts movement, but in a good way for comedy, as we have nuns trying to be showgirls, and not the other way round. We even have nuns on point in one number.”

The band members, perched on the mezzanine level, add to the visual impact too. “They’ll all be dressed as monks and vicars, and our musical director, Martin Lay, is playing the role of Father Patrick, leading the heavenly chorus,” says Neil. “Even the stage manager, Sarah Craggs, will be a nun!”

York Light Opera Company in Nunsense: The Mega-Musical!; Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, June 26 to July 6, 7.30pm (except June 30, July 1 and July 6); 3pm, June 29 and 30, July 6.  Box office: