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Hail Mary at Old Mill Theatre

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World premiere of fun nun comedy
nuns convent Hail Mary Old Mill Theatre play comedy stage performance performing arts South Perth
Julia Trefeli, left, Valerie Dragojevic, Norma Davis, Vivienne Marshall, Caroline McDonell and Jesse McGinn all play nuns in the world premiere of the comedy Hail Mary.

Perth-based playwright Noel O'Neil certainly keeps himself busy, whether writing comedies or dramas, acting, directing or teaching the essence of stagecraft.

Widely awarded, he can easily turn his hand to intense historical drama, such as in Under Any Old Gum Tree, and then just as easily switch to comedy something he's doing this April.

Premiering at the Old Mill Theatre, Hail Mary is a fun, irreverent play about nuns trying to save their convent from being turned into a housing estate. As Noel puts it, the story is "classic David versus Goliath".

nuns convent Hail Mary Old Mill Theatre play comedy stage performance performing arts South Perth
Archbishop Monticello (Rex Gray, left) and Father Costello (Noel O'Neill also writer and director of the play) share a liquid blessing.

The fictional convent is in the Swan Valley. Its high operating costs are forcing the sale. But the developers didn't bargain on one thing: a group of nuns who are highly unconventional, to say the least.

Young Sister Rosa, prone to wild imaginings, believes she saw the Virgin Mary on the roof. The nuns, of course, then declare the convent a holy place.

And it seems this vision could solve all their woes... people flock from near and far after hearing the story. The nuns raise money by selling home-made bread and wine (hey, if the Benedictine monks at New Norcia can sell their own beer, bread and cake, then why not?).

But things must be getting out of hand if the Archbishop gets wind of what's going on and decides to visit.

"I really have no idea where half of my ideas come from," Noel, who also plays Father Costello, said. "I wanted to do something comedic about nuns. I do have great respect for those who devote their lives to one religious order or another but my comedic side allowed me to indulge in a little fun, hopefully without being too offensive.

"The challenge is to put an enormous amount of energy into each character I have created. To assist me in directing, I have Valerie Dragojevic who directed my script It's All Greek to Me last year, and Caroline McDonnell, who assisted me with The Big Casino, also in 2014. Given their skill in helping to bring my works to life, I'm in safe hands."

nuns convent Hail Mary Old Mill Theatre play comedy stage performance performing arts South Perth
Norma Davis has the role of Mother Superior in Hail Mary.

Norma Davis plays the Mother Superior, who appears to be "losing her marbles".

"But she's still the head of the convent so the nuns have to defer to her," she said. "They humour her and her penchant for breaking into song from her favourite musical whenever she can.

"The challenges are learning lines, given I'm out of practice, and not being Catholic I have to get into those ways and that thinking. Actually having to sing is the most difficult part but fortunately it's not that much because my singing ability is zero. I'm really stepping out of my comfort zone with this role."

Involved in theatre for "more years than she cares to remember", Norma always liked play-acting as a child but didn't do anything for many years after leaving school because of her family and career.

She resumed her interest with Melville Theatre in 1986 and has performed in numerous productions over the years with the Old Mill, Harbour, Celtic Circle, Playlovers and Stirling Theatres. Also working as the Old Mill Theatre manager, she was presented with lifetime membership in 2012 and given a Finley Award for "continuing commitment over and above the call of duty".

Norma was recognised by the City of South Perth during its 2012 Australia Day honours, nominated for Citizen of the Year and the Premier's Australia Day Active Citizenship Award, as well as receiving the Rotary Club's Unsung Hero Award.

nuns convent Hail Mary Old Mill Theatre play comedy stage performance performing arts South Perth
Sister Marilyn (Julia Trefeli, left), Sister Vinnie (Valerie Dragojevic) and Mother Superior (Norma Davis) rally to save their convent in Hail Mary.

Hail Mary appealed to her because it was a chance to tread the boards once more. "I'm usually working in the background these days and this was an opportunity to appear on stage," Norma said. "I also like Noel O'Neill's odd sense of humour and I think the play is extremely funny."

Hail Mary plays at 8pm April 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23 and 24 with a 2pm matinee April 19. Tickets are $25, $20 concession book a oldmilltheatre.com.au/tickets or on 9367 8719.

It is the second show in a year of all-Australian plays at the Old Mill Theatre to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landing in 2015.

The heritage-listed Old Mill Theatre is on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road, South Perth (opposite the Windsor Hotel and Australia Post).

nuns convent Hail Mary Old Mill Theatre play comedy stage performance performing arts South Perth
Sister Abbott (Caroline McDonnell, left), Sister Rosa (Jesse McGinn) and Sister Francis (Vivienne Marshall) and are some of the unconventional nuns in Hail Mary.

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Why? Laughing is a good habit, especially when nuns are involved.
When: 8pm April 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23 & 24; 2pm April 19
Phone: 9367 8719
Where: Old Mill Theatre, Mends Street, South Perth
Cost: $25, $20 concession
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