The Killing of Sister George

by Frank Marcus

Directed by Linda Stewart-Birch

March 30th - April 10th, 2004

The Tower Theatre performing at Theatro Technis, Camden

 

Cast List

June Buckridge : Alison Liney
Alice "Childie" McNaught : Danila Terragno
Mrs Mercy Croft : Meryl Griffiths
Madame Xenia : Ann Rooney

Broadcasters
Bill : Simon Humphries
Fred : Dominic Ward
Farmer Bromley : Mark Stewart-Birch
The Announcer : Elizabeth Conboy

 

Production Team

Director : Linda Stewart-Birch
Assistant Director : Doreen Shafran
Set Design : Linda Stewart-Birch, Jo Staples
Lighting Design : Andy Peregrine
Costume Design : Meryl Griffiths, Berfin Baksi
Sound Design : David Norman-Hedges, Simon Humphries

Stage Manager : Claire Rice
ASMs : Neal Roberts, Moira McSperrin
Lighting operator : Nathalie Lake
Sound operator : David Norman-Hedges
Wardrobe : Kay Perversi, Berfin Baksi
Set construction : Keith Syrett, Keith Hill, Dorothy Wright, Mark Stewart-Birch & members of cast and crew
Graphics : Mark Stewart-Birch, Creatiscope Design
Properties loaned by : Claire Rice, Roger Green, Jill Batty



Review by Richard Pedersen

Richard is a member of the Tower's Technical Committee and regular Noises Off reviewer. His latest incarnation is as an Egyptian soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra.


First of all, let me express an interest. I have been involved on the fringes of Linda Stewart-Birch's production of The Killing of Sister George in my capacity as a member of the Tower's Technical Committee, and I also helped daub brown emulsion on the two bookcases that stood either side of the fireplace. So I wasn't a complete outsider when I sat in the audience to witness this show.

The Killing of Sister George by Frank Marcus is something of a theatrical landmark, being possibly the first West End play to deal overtly with a lesbian relationship. It is, of course, well-known through the film made of the play a few years later, which starred Beryl Reid, Susannah York and Coral Browne.

The play is, perforce, much more small scale, with a cast of four and one location - June Buckridge's West End flat; (this is the mid-1960s wnen radio actresses could afford to live in Marylebone in relatively comfortable surroundings). The set at Theatro Technis, designed by the director and by Jo Staples, made the most of the limitations imposed by the two pairs of double doors in the back wall and created a space which was both homely and uncramped. The aforementioned bookcases were stuffed with memorabilia and a wonderful collection of dolls, so that the stage picture was always interesting.

June Buckridge is the real-life alter ego of "Sister George", the cheery hymn-singing District Nurse on a motor scooter who brings happiness and bandages to the good folk of Applehurst, in a radio drama with more than a passing resemblance to Ambridge. In reality, Miss Buckridge could not be further removed from her radio character, being a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, sadistic, butch lesbian.

Herein, however, lies my chief problem with the play. I can't swear to it, but I imagine that Frank Marcus had very little first-hand experience of the 1960s lesbian milieu and I sense that he couldn't resist sinking into misinformed stereotypes. Alison Liney had the difficult task of being a believable person in a not very believable situation and to her credit succeeded very well. I didn't like the character she portrayed, and would probably avoid her in real life, but I nonetheless felt real sympathy when having been sacked as Sister George, abandoned by her girifriend and faced with the prospect of playing Clarabel Cow, she sank into a heart-wrenching mooing at the very end of the play.

New member Danila Terragno played the role of June's live-in girifriend Childie (real name Alice McNaught). Childie by name and childlike by nature, she allowed herself to be utterly dominated and bullied by the obsessively jealous George (whose real first name was never used in the dialogue). As an audience we were privy to the dying throes of the six-year relationship and, like an argument between friends, it made uncomfortable viewing. It's probably the playwright's fault, but I didn't understand Childie's apparent dependence on George - she worked for a living, she had a crowd of balletomane friends, she cooked excellent scotch pancakes and yet she persisted in the relationship with a bullying dominatrix. Danila Terragno brought a real air of humanity to the role and I was on her side from the start.

I mustn't fail to mention at this juncture the amusing Laurel and Hardy interlude at the beginning of the second half. Both actresses excelled themselves in a superbly executed little routine that was great fun to watch - if only tenuously related to the core action of the play. The downstairs neighbour of the couple was the strangely attired clairvoyant (although she described herself as a "psychometrist") Madame Xenia, played with great aplomb by Ann Rooney. It's a small cameo of a role, but the actress worked all the humour she could from it, and maintained a wonderful eastern European accent throughout.

The fourth member of the quartet was the lady from the BBC, the producer of Applehurst, Mrs Mercy Croft. Meryl Griffiths made the absolute utmost of this pivotal role with her forced smile and clenched teeth, while commanding the stage in her ferociously-high stiletto heels. Ever elegant, she contrasted so well with the somewhat less than fashion-conscious George and Childie. This was not a woman with whom I should like to cross swords in a work situation (or indeed any situation). I do feel Mercy Croft should have worn a hat, but otherwise her dress-sense was immaculate. Her seduction of Childie, gradually throughout the course of the play, was expertly-handled. While on the matter of hats I'm afraid I didn't like George's last act hat. It's supposed to signal a new departure for her but I fear it just made her look frumpier than ever. Apart from that, the costumes looked just right for character and for the period.

Special praise must go to Claire Rice and her backstage team for assembling the vast array of incidental props, and for acquiring the enormous collection of floral tributes that bedecked the stage for Sister George's radio funeral. No detail was spared in making this a very good-looking production. The death of Sister George as we heard it on Madame Xenia's tape recorder, was, for an Archers' addict like myself, an absolute delight. Indeed all the Applehurst references brought chuckles of recognition from the audience. As I said at the beginning, it's sometimes difficult to be objective when you've been slightly involved in a production. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this production as, I hope, did the other Tower stalwarts who ventured out to the little-known territory which is Camden Town.