“Sister Act” at the Dominion Theatre

Mark Shenton in the West End
24 March 2024

Why are nuns so irreverently and inherently funny, at least for those who’ve not been traumatized by a strict Catholic upbringing? They’re regularly the source of humour, intentional or otherwise, in musicals. In The Sound of Music, where they provide the von Trapp family singers with the means of escaping the Nazis, the Mother Superior in the film version brings the house down with her statement, “What is it you can’t face, Maria?” In the comic caper Sister Act, nuns provide a South Philadelphia nightclub singer called Deloris Van Cartier with a safe house to hide at and protect her from her gangster boyfriend who she is going to testify against in court after witnessing him murder one of his associates.


Clive Rowe as Eddie.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


The latter show, adapted from a 1992 non-musical film, received its British premiere at the London Palladium in 2009, running for 17 months (during which Whoopi Goldberg, the original Deloris in the film, took over briefly as the Mother Superior from Sheila Hancock who had originated the role). It subsequently went to Broadway as well (with a different director), also clocking up a 17-month run. It has become a touring staple since, with a planned (and heavily sold) 2020 London summer revival that was due to star Goldberg again but was derailed by the pandemic. That production finally made it to Hammersmith Apollo in the summer of 2022, instead starring Jennifer Saunders as the Mother Superior, with Beverley Knight as Deloris.

And now, after another UK tour, it is back in the West End at the cavernous Dominion Theatre, with several valuable holdovers from the last London run, led by the incomparable Knight – one of the fiercest gospel and soul voices in all of theatreland, for performances up to 8 June, after which she will be succeeded by Alexandra Burke. Also still in the show from before are the marvellous Clive Rowe (long a staple of West End musicals, playing Eddie, Deloris’s one-time ignored classmate and now her cop protector), and the hilarious Lizzie Bea and veteran Lesley Joseph as two of the nuns.

I have to admit I’ve not always been a convert to Sister Act’s broad charms, but as played now with probably the best cast it has ever had, it has become a polished machine of a hit musical: there’s luxury casting throughout the ranks (and habits).

With even the gangster baddie – played by Lemar – and his two sidekicks (Bradley Judge and Damian Buhagiar) compulsively watchable in their own right, despite all the competition on stage, this is a production that regularly scores a comic bullseye. Television star Ruth Jones, making her stage musical debut as a hilariously Welsh Mother Superior, adds buckets of charm and good timing. And with more splendid musical theatre nous from veteran musical actors Alison Jiear (Olivier nominee for Jerry Springer: The Opera, in which she originated the role of cuckolded pole dancer Shawntel) as a comedy nun and Carl Mullaney (recently so brilliant as Albin in La Cage aux Folles at Regent’s Park) as Monsignor O’Hara, putting the camp into Catholicism, this production doesn’t put a foot or wimple wrong.

Together they provide plenty of real joy, spirit, and uplift that, as one of the songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater puts it, is designed to “Take me to heaven”. The songs are generically catchy but likeable, nodding to Dreamgirls by way of Saturday Night Fever. Director Bill Buckhurst – recently represented in the West End by the poignant The Time Traveller’s Wife – gives this show’s much more clichéd colours more depth and punchy attack than they deserve, and designer Morgan Large sets it in a succession of multi-coloured lighting arches that keep the eye visually engaged.

This is a family entertainment that’s not a million miles from the familiarity, spectacle, and star quality of a Palladium pantomime, but like that annual event delivers a happy evening that’s a genuinely populist night out.