When Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George opened in 1965, it was a controversial piece. It was one of the first plays to depict a lesbian relationship, and questioned major institutions like the BBC, at a time when they had a special place in the hearts and minds of British people. However, it ran on the West End for two years, won a smattering of awards, and was made into a classic film by Robert Aldrich in 1968. It still remains a powerful piece, and this production by London Theatre Workshop proves that many of the problems the play deals with are still rife today. We live in an age of Jimmy Saville cover ups and shoddy reporting – as mistrust for the BBC grows, so does the reach of plays like this.
June Buckridge (Sioned Jones) has played Sister George on the hugely popular radio show Applehurst for 6 years. On the show, her character is the light of the village, everyone’s favourite district nurse; at home, she is a gin swilling, cigar smoking masculine woman, who emotionally and physically abuses her younger, prettier flatmate (and girlfriend) Alice, or ‘Childie’ McNaught (Briony Rawle). It is 1965, and the radio soap is going stale, losing listeners. June begins to suspect that the programme needs a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb – they want to axe her. Her suspicions are not without ground. BBC executive Mrs Mercy Croft (Sarah Shelton) begins to pop round to the flat, ostensibly to let June down gently: but does she have an agenda of her own? As June becomes more and more uncertain, she begins to deteriorate, losing track of her own identity and happiness as Sister George gradually slips away.
Sioned Jones provided a brilliant performance as the complex June or ‘George.’ On the one hand, we sympathise with her. She is at the mercy of a larger, repressive institution: one which we have come to criticise ourselves as 21st century people. The sacking of older women such as Judi Spiers and Miriam O’Reilly over the past few years, makes the issue contemporary. However, June herself is a repressive institution: Jones was particularly fearsome during the abusive scenes between her and Childie. Perhaps, ironically, she and the BBC have much in common: both are going grey, losing lustre, and behave badly because of it. Sarah Shelton was sugary sweet as Mercy Croft, though at times her candied insults reveal her selfish core. Perhaps she embodies the corporate entertainment world: with all its talk of numbers and statistics, it says very little. Janet Amsden was comical as the gypsy, clairvoyant neighbour. She pretends to have the power that June does not, and wishes she did– the ability to see into the future, and protect herself from fate.
Though Briony Rawle provided a strong turn as Childie, making the most of what she had, this character was significantly less well rounded than the others. She seems regressive, childlike (hence her name) and we learn that she has given a child away in the past; we also learn that she has had boyfriends before June. None of this is delved into in any depth, merely used by June as a means of demeaning Childie. Perhaps the playwright used June here to manipulate and dictate the play as she manipulates those around her, squashing the influence of others. Certainly, as her professional influence slips, her personal one does too, and we learn more about Childie in the latter half of the play. However, for the most part, it meant that the audience were given a relatively brief glimpse into the mind of a thoroughly interesting character. This was unsatisfying, though not the fault of this particular director. Elements of London Theatre Workshop’s production did seem lazy, however, such as the lighting. A theatre with a small space must make the most of what they have: perhaps using red lighting on June in her rages could have been effective, with blue on Childie, to emphasise the growing gulf between them.
The Killing of Sister George is a forgotten play that we would do well to remember again. Though this production was imperfect, it has some big things to say. Frank Marcus’s ideas are more relevant than ever. Catch it before 21st November.