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Towards the end of his life, playwright Joe Orton attended a production of ‘The Killing Of Sister George’ in Wimbledon. He left an amusing account of how an audience of staid, late-middle-aged, south London matrons reacted to the ‘unbridled sexual perversion’ evident on stage while himself finding the dialogue ‘flat and unimaginative’. Orton was rarely generous to rival playwrights, but he was being a little unfair to Frank Marcus’ ground-breaking mid-sixties drama which managed to portray lesbian relationships on a West End stage still regulated by the Lord Chamberlain.
Or did it? Studying this revival by Told By An Idiot in a co-production with Stoke’s New Vic Theatre, it was notable how little was explicitly said and how much room for ambiguity remained in the text. Might this be a play less about lesbianism than about ‘intense female friendship’, which certainly exists and does not always contain a sexual element? Those coming to the play for the first time having seen Robert Aldrich’s vulgarian film version (in which the three main characters are all explicitly lesbian, with the titular Sister George portrayed as a grotesque ‘bull dyke’) might be shocked by the comparative subtlety of the source text.
Whether that text is well served by the current production is a moot point: Told By An Idiot have an interesting house style that pivots around letting the audience see the workings. Sound effects are provided live by actors doubling as foley operators. Episodes related in the scripts are ‘physicalised’ (an altercation with a pair of nuns is ‘acted out’ as it is recalled). Stage directions are read out as the actors perform them in real time. Cues are deliberately dropped and ‘lines’ are supplied over a tannoy. The aim would seem to be to literally strip away the artifice, revealing the art concealed by art. This might be perfectly appropriate for a Brecht play, or something by Wedekind or Hauser, but it sits awkwardly on a straightforward domestic drama that follows the template of the well-made play; and, at times – notably the conclusion, which shows Marcus’ dramatic writing at its best – TBAI’s approach comes dangerously close to undermining the climax of the play.
The plot, in brief: June Buckeridge has long been a standby of the radio drama, ‘Applehurst’, an everyday story of country folk pitched somewhere between The Archers and Mrs. Dale’s Diary. She drinks too much, is abusive to fellow cast members and has generally become a bit of a loose wheel. As long as her character, Sister George, a kindly district nurse, maintains popularity with the listeners, her job is safe; but when listening figures (a sixties innovation) reveal Sister George’s popularity to be on the slide, her Machiavellian boss Mercy Croft, sees the chance to get rid of her. And it’s not just her job June stands to lose: also at stake is her relationship with her live-in companion Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught.
The three central characters received strong if not especially subtle performances. Hayley Carmichael as June captured the tragi-comic elements of the character and Patrycia Kujawska as Mercy Croft was a more attractive and less predatory iteration of the character than that of Coral Browne in the film. Ada Player as the fought-over Childie was suitably artless and gangly. In the peripheral role of Madame Xenia, a bogus fortune-teller, Rina Fatania did what she could.
Mixed results, then, but a spirited attempt.
Reviewer – Paul Ashcroft
on – 2.5.23
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