The Killing of Sister George
By George, they’ve done it!
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The much beleaguered Arts Theatre in Leicester Square has had a rough time of late. Passed from manager to manager like an unwanted Christmas present the venue has presented a seemingly random array of shows – a far cry from its glory days as the home of the original productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. However, in recent months under new management, the Arts’ pulse is quickening – never more so than in this revival of Frank Marcus’ 1965 domestic drama The Killing of Sister George.
It’s appropriate that the Arts is hosting this revival (the first major production in 17 years). Like Sloane and Godot, the original production of Sister George was controversial for its unambiguous presentation of a lesbian couple, shocking audiences on its regional try-out but finding a home with London, and later, Broadway, audiences in the latter half of the swinging 60s.
At the play’s bruised heart is June Buckridge, a popular radio star whose long-running character, Sister George, is to be written out. Like Beryl Reid before her, Meera Syal brings her background in character comedy to the role. Stomping around Ciaran Bagnall’s appropriately period set, skulking in her Chelsea boots, hands thrust deep into her pockets, Syal’s June is a drunken lion, barking foghorn orders at her lover then humiliating her in company. If she takes a little time to warm up on stage, the end results are worth waiting for – the ‘one of the boys’ façade crumbles beautifully when faced with a future alone. She is matched point for point by Elizabeth Cadwallader as her child-woman lover, Alice. Hiding behind a coquettish innocence, she captures the character’s contradictions, and, in her final moments, becomes the woman she has long suppressed.
The cast is completed by TV comedy stalwarts Belinda Lang and Helen Lederer. Lang, as Mrs Mercy, the BBC producer who cuckolds June, slithers about the stage, a silver-haired cobra in gloves and pearls while Helen Lederer is appropriately dotty as a neighbourhood psychic in luminous tights.
40 years on, the sexuality of the characters has lost its shock factor and director Iqbal Khan rightly foregrounds the play’s relationships. The tragedy here is in artifice and game-playing with Khan ensuring that all the hints are there. He shows us that June’s gruffness is a much a front as Alice playing with her dolls, that Mercy’s respectability is merely a ruse to seduce Alice and that it is only Madame Xenia, the psychic, who inadvertently knows the future.
The production’s not perfect – the first half needs tightening to match the high drama of the second, and the interval is perhaps a scene too late, but by George, it’s the best production to hit the Arts Theatre in recent memory and reclaims the play not only as a classic of gay theatre, but as one which captures the destructive power of love.
The Killing of Sister George is at the Arts Theatre, London until 29 October 2011. Get tickets here.
Words: Daniel James
Photo: Ralph Ripley