The Killing of Sister George – 4 stars

People’s Theatre, Newcastle.

I’m often very wary of plays from the 60’s – particularly ones which, at the time, were lauded for being ground breaking and daring but, with the passage of time, now run the risk of just appearing dated, tame and dreary. But in today’s climate where the BBC are under constant criticism and will get rid of people at the drop of a hat, where soap stars are seemingly more newsworthy than actual news, and where the debate on homosexuality prevails stronger and louder than ever, this 1965 West-End hit by Frank Marcus is perhaps not as unfashionable as it might first appear.

Sister George is in fact a character in an Archers-style Radio 4 series, played by an alcoholic, masculine, cigar-puffing actress who appears to verbally and sometimes physically abuse her flat-mate, Alice “Childie” McNaught. It is implied – though never explicitly stated – that these two women are lesbians, and they certainly appear to fall easily into the dominant and submissive roles found in many relationships, whether gay or straight. It is the consummate skill of the two actresses that raise the game way above an average, stereotypical portrayal of a dysfunctional relationship.

Dolores Poretta-Brown, as June Buckridge (the actress who plays Sister George on the radio), gives a storming and very funny performance; at one time marching around the stage, barking her lines in a declamatory fashion and chomping on her cigar in a somewhat Churchill-like fashion, and then almost in the same breath portraying a weakness and vulnerability which provokes real empathy from the audience. Penny Lamport, as the childlike “Childie”, does a first rate job of showing us the apparently simple, dewy-eyed and doting flatmate (and lover?), then revealing a much more calculated side to the character which makes us suspect her motives all along. A programme note tells us that this is a play about love, mistrust, “and ultimately manipulation”. This is true, to varying degrees, of all the characters. Perhaps none more so than Childie, and Lamport absolutely hits the mark in the playing of it.

As the BBC exec who comes to deliver some bad news to Sister George, Kate Wilkins does a superb line in ‘smiling assassin’. Her performance is subtle and nuanced, and completely believable. Helga McNeil is the eccentric Madame Xenia, the fortune teller who lives in the flat downstairs and appears every so often simply to provide a bit of a comic turn. It is to McNeil’s credit that she seems very aware of that fact, and plays her part with relish and aplomb!

The dialogue, setting and subject matter do tend to date this play somewhat; the only way to deal with that, if you are going to produce it, is to set it firmly in the time it was written. This is exactly what the production team have done, with the 60’s design reminiscent of a gaudy set from an Austin Powers film. It’s not really my cup of tea, to be honest, but that is just personal taste. Objectively speaking, this is an excellent production, with four great performances by four outstanding actresses.

(originally posted 17 April 2013)

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