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Nunsense
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'The Musical Produced'
Richard Allen - Producer - The Barnstormers

'NUNSENSE' - Music & Lyrics by Dan Goggin

I formed The Barnstormers theatre group about seven years ago as a one-off project to raise funds for the development and improvement of the Barn Theatre in Oxted, Surrey. We have been staging annual productions since then and continue to raise much needed funds for the theatre. The Barnstormers has no committee or membership as such, but instead draws on the considerable pool of amateur theatre talent in our area. Our aim is to produce musicals and plays of the highest quality possible.

Following the success of our previous production of Arthur Miller's classic play 'The Crucible' (see 'The Play Produced' Volume LXII January 2006), I thought it was about time for something completely different and, following a recommendation from a friend, decided to have a look at the Dan Goggin's musical comedy 'Nunsense'. I vaguely remember seeing the original West End production back in 1987 and recall it being great fun, but I rediscovered the show relatively recently via a copy of the script and original cast CD. The DVD of the 1993 Off-Broadway production also proved a useful resource.

With its small cast (of five women) and one fixed set, 'Nunsense' was exactly the sort of smaller scale show that we were looking to slot in 2006 before our much larger planned production of 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' touring to the Minack Theatre, Cornwall next year. The show fitted well into the relatively intimate space of the Barn Theatre and I quickly fell in love with its infectious music and quick-fire comedy. The fun and frolics of 'Nunsense' also provided the perfect antidote to the dramatic and serious subject matter of 'The Crucible'.

PRODUCTION TEAM
I have always believed that choosing the right production team is as important as casting the show. Martin Patrick was always going to be my first choice as Director. Comedy is Martin's forte having successfully directed and appeared in numerous comedies, pantomimes and variety shows.

Ian Skipper has a considerable reputation locally as Musical Director and I was very pleased when he agreed to join the team. There is a substantial amount of music to learn between five cast members, much of it in harmony, and I was confident Ian would get the very best out of our cast.

Next door to the Barn Theatre is our local dance school run by Jolene and Sophie Kiddle. As choreographers, Jolene and Sophie, were able to bring with them considerable experience as professional dancers and tackle with confidence the show's wide range of dancing styles.

THE PLOT & CASTING
'Nunsense' is set within the convent of the Little Sisters of Hoboken in New Jersey. Sister Julia, the convent cook, has served vichyssoise soup causing 52 of the sisterhood to die instantly of botulism. Before all of the deceased sisters were buried, Reverend Mother Superior bought the convent a new home entertainment system (we updated it from the 'VCR' in the script), resulting in them not having enough money to bury the four remaining dead sisters who are being stored in the freezer! In order to raise enough money to bury these sisters, a few of the surviving nuns put on a riotous revue packed with hilarious, show-stopping song and dance numbers. It's this hilarious review that forms the premise for 'Nunsense'.

This is the smallest cast I've worked with on a musical and it soon became clear that the vocal and acting demands placed on each individual would be considerable. There would be no room for hangers-on, as there's nowhere to hide in a cast of five. We were therefore looking for five talented 'all-rounders', who would need to gel together into a close-knit team.

Reverend Mother (Sister Mary Regina) is the head of the convent and the lead of the piece. She controls proceedings throughout the evening (except when high on a 'certain substance') and has the greatest amount of dialogue, including several long one-to-one sections with the audience. The part requires a strong singing voice and someone with natural confidence and self-assurance, not to mention good comic timing. Teresa Skinner was a perfect fit for us and her vocal talents were such that we decided to go with the option (given in the script) for Reverend Mother to sing the final number in the show, 'Holier than Thou'.

Sister Mary Hubert is second in command at the convent, although she thinks she should be number one. There is a healthy rivalry with Reverend Mother and at times the two of them work as a double-act culminating with their number 'Just a Coupl'a Sisters'. Fiona Steel has been a Barnstormer since our early days and is confident singer and performer.

Natasha Palmer is one of our most talented local comic actresses and we could immediately see the potential for her in the role of the sweet, nave and forgetful Sister Amnesia who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. Sister Amnesia has a variety of memorable comic moments including working with the audience during the quiz, a ventriloquist act with the nun puppet ('Sister Mary Annette') in 'So You Want To Be A Nun' and belting out the country & western number 'I Could've Gone to Nashville'.

Another character that needs to work one-to-one with the audience is Sister Robert Anne. She is the streetwise nun who's regularly at odds with Reverend Mother and consequently starts the show as the understudy. She grabs her chance at the beginning of Act Two to show the audience some of her 'habit humour', creating 'other nuns' by twisting and rolling her veil into comical shapes, and then moves on a little later to sing her big number 'I Just Want to Be a Star'. Cathy Longhurst is an experienced musical theatre actress who knows how to sell a big number, but can also sing from the heart as required in 'Growing Up Catholic'.

Sister Mary Leo is the ballet-mad novice nun who dreams of becoming the first nun ballerina. Elizabeth Skinner was able to put across the character as young and impressionable and her fine singing voice was very welcome both as soloist and in the ensemble work. She also took on the considerable task of learning ballet pointe work in a matter of only six weeks.

MUSIC & SOUND
As with any musical I look at, I have to love the music to stand any chance of liking the show. 'Nunsense' starts strongly with a great opening number and finishes on a high with the wonderful gospel finale 'Holier than Thou'. There are always those show numbers where you can instantly see their potential on stage and for me 'Nunsense' was full of them. There are classic vaudeville numbers such as 'Turn Up the Spotlight' and 'I Just Want to Be a Star', comedy numbers including 'So You Want to Be a Nun' and 'I Could've Gone to Nashville' and the close harmony Andrews Sisters style number 'Drive In'. The show is not without light and shade and Act Two opens with Sister Robert Anne fondly remembering her school days in 'Growing Up Catholic'.

Most of the ensemble numbers include a fair amount of harmony singing (with up to five parts) and we therefore had to set aside an above average number of music rehearsals to ensure the girls felt completely confident with holding their own lines. There are certainly some wonderful harmony moments that deserve to be heard - in my opinion not done full justice on the original cast CD. We found the most challenging songs were 'A Difficult Transition' for its sheer length and word learning, the three part close-harmony 'Drive In' and 'So You Want to Be a Nun' where Sister Amnesia has to switch rapidly between her own voice and the puppet's voice.

Any sound processing was used sparingly, however reverb was added to create a 'church feel' for the plainchant at the start of the show and for the backing choir in 'Growing Up Catholic'. A bigger reverb was used to give the impression that Sister Amnesia was up on a huge concert stage during 'I Could've Gone to Nashville'.

'Nunsense' is scored for a small band of four players - Piano, Synthesiser, Reeds & Drums/Percussion. Our Musical Director played piano and so only three other musicians were necessary. We decided to locate the band off-stage right to maximise the playing area on stage and to acoustically isolate them. This allowed us to effectively balance the band against our five performers.

SCENERY
Our Set Designer, Bruce Reed, made full use of the space available to create the Mount St Helens School theatre on the Barn stage. The rear of the stage was dominated by raised staging bordered with banisters, with two sets of steps leading down to the larger open area. The rear flats had three stained glass windows set within them. Positioned around the stage were various pieces of set supposedly left over from the student's production of 'Grease'. These include a 1950's style counter with diner stools set to stage right, another truck set centre stage representing on one side the back of a 1950's car (complete with flashing indicators and brake lights) and on the other a car seat.

There was also a bedroom scene (dressed in pink) to stage left. These trucks were moved by cast members and there was no need for any stage crew to go on stage during the performance. To far stage left and right adjacent to the proscenium arch were two 'Catholic' shrines (complete with their own lighting) and fixed at the top of the proscenium arch was a 'Grease' sign (which could also be illuminated). The script calls for a jukebox and exercise cycle to be located on stage. The exercise cycle caused us no problems to find, however our enquiries into hiring a jukebox established it would cost in excess of 300 for the week, this for what amounts to a five second gag in the show. We decided it was not worth it and made use of an old fashioned record player instead.

We removed the front curtains, so the stage was visible to the audience at all times. The nuns start both Acts in amongst the audience, and we thought that by removing the curtains this gave the whole production an appropriately informal feel and supported the overall impression that the audience had stepped into the real Mount St Helens theatre.

LIGHTING
The show lighting moved between general stage lighting and bold colourful lighting used in many of the musical numbers. Our Lighting Designer, Carolyn Rowley, gave us a palette of strong pinks, blues, purples, reds and yellows with which to flood the stage. Good use was made of the Barn's two follow spots and pin spots fixed along the front of the stage were used to give the impression of a freezer door opening during 'We've Got to Clean Out the Freezer'. Various specials were used to highlight the front of stage, stage left bed area and to pick up the soloist and choir during 'Growing Up Catholic'. A glitter ball was brought in for 'Turn Up the Spotlight' and 'I Could've Gone to Nashville' and a star gobo enhanced the number 'I Just Want To Be A Star'. For the final gospel number, 'Holier than Thou', disco lights were installed behind each stained glass window and above the audience and chaser lights were fixed around the proscenium arch, front of stage and stained glass windows for a spectacular finale.

COSTUMES
All five performers wore traditional nuns habits and the writer's notes at the back of the script are quite specific about the various elements that make up the complete nuns attire. The only differences between the five nun costumes are that Reverend Mother wears a cross around her neck and Sister Mary Leo has an all-white veil denoting her novice status. All the nuns should look pristine at all times and great care was taken to secure down veils and collars to avoid them flying around during the dance numbers. We also found it necessary to split the habits on one side to just below the knee to allow the nuns more freedom of movement during the more energetic dance routines. Pockets were added to cope with a variety of personal props.

The nuns 'accessorised' their basic habits with a selection of hats and other costume items. We used glitter hats and canes in several of the dance numbers, we gave Reverend Mother a feather boa during 'Turn Up the Spotlight', Sister Robert Anne had her 'Convent Miranda' hat and Sister Mary Leo her 'Dying Nun' hat. Three of the nuns wore Andrews Sisters hats for the 'Drive In' close-harmony number. Sister Mary Leo also appears in pink dressing gown and slippers at the start of her 'Benedicite' number.

SPECIAL EFFECTS & PROPS Possibly the most unusual prop in the show is the nun puppet, 'Sister Mary Annette'. Sister Amnesia performs a ventriloquist act and duets with the puppet during 'So You Want To Be A Nun'. We contacted Pady Blackwood, the maker of the original puppet used in the off-Broadway production, and he agreed to make us a brand new puppet, which we now own and have available for hire.

Other more specialist props include the 'Baking with the BVM' book, featured in the Act Two cooking scene, complete with a picture of the 'Blessed Virgin Mary' in her cook's hat and apron! Sister Amnesia awards a variety of 'Catholic' prizes during her quiz, including St Christopher Motorist Prayer Cards and St Francis figurines. The latter coming direct from a souvenir stall in Rome!

SPECIAL REQUIREMENTS Immediately following the 'Drive In' number in Act Two the script calls for a slide show presentation culminating in a rather revealing picture of Reverend Mother. We decided to take this whole idea a little further and spent a day down in Brighton filming our nuns 'home video'. A hysterically funny day was had by all, with our nuns in full costume running up and down Brighton beach, riding the dodgems and trying their luck in the amusement arcade! The video was filmed and edited by Matthew Patrick and was back-projected on to a drop-down screen during the show.

The Barnstormers always look for the very best from their production team and cast and this production was certainly been no exception. I am immensely proud of our production team, technical team and cast for rising to the challenge. The quality of the production and its justly deserved applause will stick in my mind for a long time. For more information about this production and The Barnstormers, please visit our website at www.thebarnstormers.org.