There’s a great sequence in this show where the two central characters, dressed up for a fancy dress party, perform a Laurel and Hardy pastiche: Sioned Jones (Sister George/June Buckridge) and Briony Rawle (Alice “Childie” McNaught) really let themselves go in this moment, ebulliently lightening the darker moods that permeate this revival. Oh, that the two actors could have brought the same freedom to the rest of their performance.
The Artful Theatre 50th anniversary production of Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George poses this question to the audience: has anything really changed? On one hand the answer is yes: in spades. In the intervening fifty years we have had Gay Pride, Rainbow Warriors, a slew of equality legislation, same sex marriage and LGBT has become a byword for diversity. All this must surely inform the direction of a show that deals with the controversial (in 1965) subject of lesbianism. But on the other hand this production implies that nothing has changed at all. Its hands-off, muted, tiptoeing around the central theme would suggest that the intention is to recreate exactly how the play would have been first presented, in a kind of frozen-in-time Mousetrap mould rather than, say, the hindsight-fuelled re-imagining of An Inspector Calls.
Plays are organic. They should develop over time (do we still do Shakespeare like it was done in the fifteen hundreds?) Homosexuality is a subject we can now look at, talk about, examine openly without the titters and the twitching net curtains. I am certain that the playwright would have wanted to see development.
The darker side of lesbianism has to smoulder under the surface of Marcus’s prescient script because the Lord Chamberlain, and public opinion back then, demanded it. But liberation has come after a long struggle and much sacrifice. It is therefore a tad depressing to find in 2015 that Jones and Rawle keep each other at arm’s length throughout the piece and any touching is perfunctory – which is strange. These two had been sleeping together for six years for heaven’s sake. In making-up mode is a proper kiss too much to ask? It was almost as if the two actors were saying: we’re playing the part of lesbians, but, hey, everyone out there, we’re not actually lesbians, OK? Which is very much a sixties attitude, of course.
Sister George is the star of the long-running radio soap Applehurst (think The Archers) but she is about to be killed off. Contrasting with her radio alter ego, June Buckridge is a gin-swilling, cigar-toting, foul-mouthed prima donna who likes to dominate her apparently slow-witted live-in lover. The emphasis is therefore on being an egotistic, devil-may-care, larger than life character. Jones really wasn’t large enough, though. Marcus gives the character some wonderful comic lines but many of these were lost through poor timing and, one would have thought, that after four stiff gins (trebles at least) in ten minutes (the action happens in real time) there would be at least a slight slurring of speech. But June Buckridge’s drunkenness – if she’s not an alcoholic she’s well on the road as drinking gin early in the morning would indicate – is never explored.
Rawle as Alice, or “Childie” as her lover calls her, gives a considered performance but seems to be operating in a straitjacket that she would love to cast off and go for it big-time. The impression is that she would like to be bolder, to take the character further, deeper but that it is not possible because of the way the action is framed. She moves confidently from the demure to the stubborn just enough to suggest that, despite her lover’s bravado, it is she who is the manipulator, who is actually controlling the relationship: we have hints of a bitch in coquette’s clothing but we need more. Sitting in the audience one finds oneself mentally screaming: WHERE’S THE SEXUAL TENSION?!
Sarah Shelton gives a very solid performance as Mrs Mercy Croft, BBC Executive and coveter of Alice. The unconfined glee with which she describes the looming death of Sister George is the highlight of the show. And Janet Amsden is wonderful as the ever-so slightly deranged clairvoyant Madame Xenia.
The show, directed by Scott le Crass, is at the London Theatre Workshop housed in the Eel Brook Pub in New Kings Road, Fulham. It’s a brilliant space, used very well by this production with an effective set (designed by Justin Savage). The large centrepiece picture of 3D dolls on a black background is suggestive of the dark and self-destructive themes underlying every line of this script: as the run progresses I would hope that the cast could be much bolder in their examination of those themes.
Review by Peter Yates
Gin swilling, cigar chomping, overbearing June Buckridge has played the beloved character ‘Sister George’ in the popular BBC Radio Drama, Applehurst, for six years. But being the star doesn’t stop BBC executives deciding to kill her off in an attempt to halt the show’s falling ratings. Furious at the lack of loyalty, June’s precarious personal world heads into a tailspin.
First produced on stage 50 years ago, with the great Beryl Reid as June and giving Eileen Atkins’ her theatre debut as ‘Childie’, this ground breaking dark comedy takes us to the world of BBC television and radio in the1960s where perception is everything and no one is who they say they are.
With the recent revelations surrounding Jimmy Saville, was this iconic play an unwitting glimpse into the tawdy, sordid media world of the 1960s as it really was?
An Artful production The Killing of Sister George by Frank Marcus
Director: Scott Le Crass
Produced by Sarah and Justin Savage for Artful Theatre Productions Limited
The Killing of Sister George
by Frank Marcus
29th October – 21st November 2015