The angel and the lap-dancer

Stella Duffy has adapted her tale of body politics, the Messiah and sex for the London stage

Charlotte Cripps@charcripps
Sunday 13 October 2013 02:32

The writer Stella Duffy says that, although she has helped to adapt her novel, Immaculate Conceit, for the stage - alongside the director Paul Roseby and the National Youth Theatre Company - it is still scary watching it being rehearsed. "Well, it's not mine anymore," she says. "You write it on a page, but all that happens is in the reader's head. Then it becomes something a large group of people can see physically, and it is terrifying." Nerves aside, though, Duffy feels she has avoided the pitfalls many authors face: "Writers working in the theatre can encounter hierarchy problems, but I'm pleased with the results."

Duffy is perhaps more comfortable with the crossover than most: in addition to writing three novels and more than 20 short stories, she has taught improvisation to actors and writers, and for more than 15 years she has worked with the comedy company Spontaneous Combustion (she plays Julie in the Radio 4 sitcom Losers). So she's no stranger to performance. "I have loved working with these young actors," she says of the 18-strong cast of Immaculate Conceit. "They are not cynical or world-weary."

The original novel tells the story of Sofia, a lap-dancer, and the action of the play has been relocated to the lap-dancing clubs of London's Soho. Single, but still close to her ex-boyfriend, Sofia is visited one night by the angel Gabriel. Just as Mary did, Sofia falls pregnant - but, in our faithless modern age, she is not believed. "I always wondered what it would be like if this had happened to me when I was younger," says Duffy, who went to a Catholic girls' school. "The theme that runs through the story is women's body image. 'Whose body is it anyway?' The Immaculate Conception is a huge invasion, and Sofia's body is something she uses for her living [as a lap-dancer]. There is a religious and a sexual angle."

To get across this idea of "body ownership", says Duffy, "the acting is very physical." In one scene with a lap-dancer, "she is fully clothed - not stripping - and looking directly at the audience. It is sexy - but should a woman of 18 be doing this?" asks Duffy. "I hope the audience will question what is going on. It's not meant to be like XXX [the controversial performance art show by the Spanish theatre group La Fura dels Baus]. It is not a half-hour striptease. We are not trying to shock. It is about thinking about our own reactions." Meanwhile, how does Sofia tell her ex-boyfriend that she is having a relationship with the angel Gabriel? It sounds like a madder version of Bridget Jones's Diary.

The play also contains a lot of choreographed, chorus-line moments: "It has become a very visual, musical and physical piece," enthuses Duffy. "It's terribly exciting. We don't have the budget of a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but a lot of miracles happen on stage. There is a lot you can do with smoke and mirrors."

'Immaculate Conceit', Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (0870-050 0511; 27 August to 13 September

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