Written by Mary J O’Malley in 1979, set in 1957, Once A Catholic is an uproarious comedy poking fun at the Catholic church and the nuns in its schools who cowed and confused successive generations of girls with the combined threat of everlasting hellfire and a secretarial career.

Director Kathy Burke is an outstanding actress, feminist and comedy National Treasure whose interpretation of the play, fuelled by her own rebellious education at Maria Fidelis Convent School in Camden, should massively enhance this new revival.

It’s hard to pinpoint why it doesn’t quite come off: O’Malley set the original firmly in the working class Irish community of 1950′s Kilburn where fathers were the migrant road builders and construction workers of the new Elizabethan age: her dialogue has the rhythm and idiom of the Irish accent, but Burke shunts the characters closer to Cockney, and some of the fire and music is lost.

The excellence of Burke’s own interpretative and intuitive acting comes from her training at Anna Scher and work with Mike Leigh: in interviews she’s spoken appreciatively of the freedom she was given to develop characters in her own way. Perhaps in extending this generosity to her cast at the Tricycle, she’s created a directorial rod for her own back since at least four of them seem to be in different plays, in different eras, and in Cecilia Noble’s shamefully overacted Jamaican Mother Peter, in a different hemisphere.  Hard to believe this is the same actress who was so subtly brilliant in The Amen Corner.

The French’s Acting Edition of the play specifies six schoolgirls – part of the joke is that the whole class of 30 are all named Mary – but Burke has trimmed this to three and they work overtime to maintain the plot and the humour. In Molly Logan, though, she has found a remarkably talented young actress who is so much her vocal and physical double that it’s like Burke’s playing the part of Mary O’Malley herself.  Logan quickly wins the affection of the audience, has great comic timing and a fine singing voice, she’s certainly an actress to watch.

For the rest, it’s a good rather than a great production. Possibly we’re all jaded by jibes about the Church and post-The Magdalene Sisterspost-Judi Dench in Philomena and the countless and scandals which preceded the resignation of the last Pope, maybe its institutional cruelties aren’t quite so rib-tickling any more.  But it would be wrong to deny O’Malley’s play its place in history since for all the condemnations and soft-target stand-up routines about Catholicism, she was one of the first to set them on stage, and the angry diatribe she puts in the mouth of teddy boy Derek as delivered by Calum Callaghan is still a searing and eloquent indictment.

Once A Catholic continues at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn High Road, until 18 January. Tickets £10-£28, available from the Tricycle Theatre website, although it is currently sold out until 10 January. We saw this production on a press ticket provided by Kate Morley PR.

Image by Tristram Kenton

Londonist Originally published on Londonist