Review – The Killing of Sister George, Arts Theatre

Monday 10 October 2011

It will come as little surprise to hear that the Whingers can be very slow on the uptake.

As Andrew and Phil surveyed Ciaran Bagnall’s set for Frank Marcus’ 1964 lesbian drama The Killing of Sister George, they found themselves in deep discussion (don’t panic, we’ve not gone all American tourist. The play hadn’t actually started; there is no front curtain) as to where it was supposed to be taking place.

Could it be Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? We don’t remember that from the Beryl Reid film. Or the lair of some Gotham City criminal overlord? Ditto. Could it be a huge ladybit? How would we know?

It took some time before we cottoned on that we were probably inside a giant wireless (in the old sense of the word).

TKOSG is about June Buckridge (Meera Syal,) the star of a long-running radio soap opera called Applehurst (a thinly disguised The Archers). After playing the the much loved district nurse Sister George for six years she gets wind that her character is be killed off.

June/George has a live-in companion Alice/”Childie” (Elizabeth Cadwallader) who is 34 going on 16 and has a collection of dollies. They have a highly dysfunctional relationship in which Childie is forced to eat June’s cigar butts (herbal!) or drink her bathwater if she displeases her. Yummy. June also collects horse brasses. This is what a lesbian lifestyle was like in 1964; it may still be.

June also likes a bit of mother’s ruin and it may prove to be her ruin too. She has displeased the BBC by apparently drunkenly assaulting some nuns in the back of a taxi which results in the first of happily many visits to the flat by radio executive Mercy Croft (Belinda Lang).

Happily because – thank heavens for Mercy –  Lang is by far the best thing about the evening and something of a revelation. She seems completely unfazed by the task of stepping into Coral Browne’s shoes. Ms Syal, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling to find her June Buckridge which is not surprising given that this was the first preview and she was stepping into the shoes of the great Beryl Reid (who always started with the shoes) who created the role on stage and played it on screen (although apparently Angela Lansbury and Bette Davis were considered for the role- imagine that!)

In the early scenes Cadwallader’s Childie comes across as a bit Gail Tuesday but by the later, more dramatic scenes proves rather moving.

In one of the most delightful pieces of serandipity (probably), Helen Lederer has been cast in the role of the batty, foreign psychic next door, adding extra nuance to the suggestion that June Buckridge should accept the role of a cow on a children’s TV show (Miss Lederer is the voice of Miss Moo on CBBC’s Iconicles).

Despite feeling somewhat clunky and dated in places, disposing of a soap opera character to improve ratings shows that little has changed. Of course nowadays a tram or a 747 would drop on Applehurst. Or perhaps Sister George would be held hostage in a knicker factory and die in a conflagration. Or just look over her shoulder from the back of a taxi as she leaves to open a bar in Spain.

Anyway it does make a nice change to see some lesbian drama. It’s a shame that there are so few classic lady-on-lady plays – with The Children’s Hour aired earlier this year, it seems that the lesbian canon has little ammunition left to fire.

This was an amiable enough evening and, as we mentioned, it was the first preview so perhaps it will settle into something quite good once they’ve dealt with the rough edges the soft middle and the most troublesome antimacassar we have ever seen in our lives.

Rating

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