Sister Act review – Beverley Knight and Jennifer Saunders lead a divine London revival
The show finally stages its long-awaited Hammersmith season before heading on tour
Holy moly, Beverley Knight can sing. Any time you're worried that the energy levels are beginning to wane in Bill Buckhurst's bright, technicolor revival of Sister Act, the performer only has to get a single bar into a new number and things pick right up. A Knight with shining glamour.
The award-winning performer steps into the shoes of Whoopi Goldberg who, like the second coming, had originally been set to return to the role of Deloris Van Cartier in a rejigged production of the 2006 musical, based on the much-loved 1992 film of the same name. Goldberg has had a long, lucrative relationship with the property – first playing Deloris in the movie, appearing as Mother Superior for a run at The London Palladium and now producing this version, she's also set to return for a third screen outing on Disney Plus. As for the best laid London plans however, the show had to close after one day of rehearsals thanks to Covid – and UK audiences were deprived a chance to see Goldberg back on stage.
As it turns out, that may have been no bad thing – Knight brings out the best in record-breaking composer Alan Menken's score, proving why "Fabulous, Baby!", "Take Me to Heaven" and "Raise Your Voice" are all veritable ear-worms. Goldberg would have had to pull out some mighty miracles to top the turn audiences get here. Knight also laces her performance with much-needed charm and comedy – wise-crack gags galore.
Buckhurst's production is said to feature some slightly tweaked scenes and dialogue, but the main cut and thrust remains similar to previous iterations. For anyone unfamiliar with the film, it follows aspiring performer Deloris, fearing for her life after witnessing her ex-boyfriend murder a police informant. To keep her safe, the soul singer is shacked up with a bunch of nuns in a down-and-out convent in central Philadelphia. From there, Deloris uses musical prowess to revive the fortunes of the convent and, in turn, save both herself and those around her.
Knight is far from the only draw in an evening laden with riches. Sharing top billing is Jennifer Saunders, channelling all the best aspects of Maggie Smith's Mother Superior while also adding her own easy flippancy. It's a refined turn from one of our comedic icons.
Elsewhere, an underused Keala Settle dials everything up to eleven, while Lizzie Bea, fresh from a leading turn in Hairspray at the Coliseum, continues to prove why she's one of musical theatre's most exciting talents. She brings the huge Hammersmith house down with "The Life I Never Led" in the second act. It's also nice to know "watch Lesley Joseph rapping Sugarhill Gang" can finally be ticked off the bucket list, and Clive Rowe is on as fine a form as you'd expect from the ardent pro as cop-slash-love interest Eddie. Jeremy Secomb's maniacal gangster Vince blends shades of Harvey Keitel with a solo-prone Patrick Bateman.
Buckhurst, whose last production seen in London was the playfully intimate Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard, gives scenes a pithy fleetness that suits the irreverential, playful material. The show is no stranger to UK stages, and while the Goldberg film has a surprisingly understated sweetness, everything here is a deluge of sugar-rush sentimentality and spirited vim, peppered with small insights into the meaning of faith, community, and, of course, sister-hood (or would it be sister-coif?).
It ends up as a wildfire trip through a kaleidoscopic Philadelphia (none of the dreary greys of the original film) on designer's Morgan Large's glittery menagerie of set pieces. Particular kudos goes to the slick transition from convent to hell-themed dive bar. Large also makes the most of the occasional chance to go beyond a stage full of dull habits, with Rowe's two rapid-fire costume changes providing delight to audiences during "I Could Be That Guy".
It's a slightly sad fact that Sister Act will never be known as Menken's best work compared to the likes of Little Shop, Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. For every "Raise Your Voice" there's a much more forgettable number (often, sadly, given over to Saunders), meaning the tempo can lull in spots. The revival lands squarely in the "feel-good and proud of it" camp – comfortably rubbing shoulders with the likes of Anything Goes and Hairspray.
But as a production knowing exactly what it wants to do led by a heavenly vocalist, Sister Act pulls off a lot of it with adept poise – offering a divine night out in the process. Oh, and keep an eye out for the pope-mobile!