Chris Eldon Lee review ‘The Killing of Sister George’, which is at The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday 13th May,
“The sacrificial cow descends the white spiral staircase.”
I doubt if that final stage direction actually concluded the script that the German-born playwright Frank Marcus wrote in 1965, but this new production is orchestrated at the New Vic by the ‘Told By An Idiot’ outfit, so the idiotic is to be expected.
It’s a pretty silly story.
June is the famous leading actor in a radio soap called ‘Applechurch – A Chronicle of an English Village’. The parallel is obvious. Even the theme tune, which Marcus composed himself, is a pretty tight pastiche of ‘Barwick Green’. But the BBC hierarchy has decreed that her character, the village nurse called ‘Sister George’, has got to be pointlessly killed off. Oh dear! Nothing changes at the BBC. Just ask Ken Bruce, Simon Mayo or, indeed, Nigel Pargeter.
As expected, there is an outcry which, as expected, the BBC ignores. ‘Auntie’ knows best, even though audiences back then had less media-cred and struggled even more with the blurring of fiction with reality. How June and her associates come to terms with her needless demise is the emotionally intriguing crux of half the play, but it’s the other half that made it famous.
June is a lesbian and this was the first play to depict a lesbian relationship on stage. In ’65 the audiences initially voted with their feet, and at times I was shuffling too. But they were eventually won round by the power of the performances of the magnificent Beryl Reid as June, and Eileen Atkins, as her toy-girl Alice. Stay with the show folks, because Hayley Carmichael and Ada Player pull off a similar trick at the New Vic.
Ada Player in particular gets beneath the skin of everyday lesbianism… portraying the angst of a girl who can’t escape from her bullying, super-protective, older partner. Her ‘Alice’ is fey, small minded, pathetically vulnerable and inadequate. Try as she vows, she cannot keep June off the booze. And when the axe wielding East-European BBC executive Miss Mercy (Patrycja Kujawska) strides into their flat, the attraction is enough to upset the Apple-hurst cart.
This, of course, will not be the first lesbian play our generation has seen and director Paul Hunter naturally makes it all seem more familiar. The tiffs and jealousies are more homely than shocking…almost cosily quaint as the reminiscences about the lovers’ first meeting tumble out. I suspect time has shorn the play of the power it possessed 60 years ago.
They do fun things with it though. The stage is strewn with panels of flooring you would have found in the Ambridge Studio back them, so sound effects assistants could walk on gravel, pebbles, plush carpets or ceramic tiles. There’s a fully miked sound effects desk where actors guzzle water, slam doors and give prompts. This is clever at first and is about to pall … until they pull extra tricks out of the bag, making the repetition well worthwhile.
A highlight is Sister George’s actual death scene which involves the fourth actor, Rina Fatania, at the wheel of a sound-effect 10-ton truck; written in to emphasise National Road Safety Week. Another sees June and Alice going to a fancy dress ball, charmingly hamming it up as Laurel and Hardy. Again, the big bossy character and the put-upon side kick.
Sadly though, between the flashes of brilliance, there are passages that now feel ponderous. It was great to see this play at long last, but I did wish Told By An Idiot had let rip and made it even more idiotic.