Review: The Killing of Sister George, London Theatre Workshop

“What are you doing?
‘I’m writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation’”

With a BBC struggling to deal with its unruly stars and their personal lives under severe public scrutiny, one could be mistaken for thinking the world of The Killing of Sister George isn’t too far from our own. Which is part of the rationale behind Artful Theatre’s revival of the 1964 play by Frank Marcus, asking the question has anything really changed in the intervening 50 years. That gap between public perception and private reality has long inspired drama, from Harley Granville Barker’s Waste to the recent McQueen but here it gains an extra currency due to its exploration of lesbian sexuality.

Given the era Frank Marcus was writing in, this is never explicitly stated in the play and part of its enduring success has been that the dynamics of its sexual intrigues and twisted power games are universally applicable. Director Scott Le Crass clearly recognises this and so his production for London Theatre Workshop exercises restraint in showing any Sapphic shenanigans whilst leaving us in no doubt as to the true nature of the relationship between radio star June Buckridge and her younger ‘flatmate’ Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught.

June is a much-loved star on a long-running The Archers-like radio show Applehurst but her disruptive off-air behaviour has, in part, led BBC executives to decide to kill her off and as her professional world crumbles, so too does her private life suffer. Sioned Jones gives a striking portrayal of this woman, so caught up in the character she’s played for so long that its forcible removal from her life is genuinely jarring. She papers over the cracks with frou-frou fringes and gay jollity but Jones expertly lets the haunted realisation slowly encompass, right through to the deeply moving ending.

The precarious nature of her relationship with Briony Rawle’s Childie is interestingly drawn, Rawle making her no wide-eyed sub but rather as much a manipulative player in the game as June, particularly once the Beeb’s Mrs Mercy Croft comes onto the scene. Sarah Shelton’s officious exec revels in the disruption she brings to June’s life and as her subtly lascivious eye settles on Childie, they both recognise the new opportunities offered therein. Janet Amsden’s Madame Xenia, managing to come across as a genuine friend for June through the kookiness rounds off the cast well.

It’s not a perfect play, the pacing does sag occasionally and the strong period feel – well evoked by Justin Savage’s design – works a little against any timelessness the production might be trying to suggest. But as my first time of seeing the play, I felt it still stands up as a thoughtful drama nonetheless – an intriguing companion of sorts to Rattigan’s tales of repression as I pondered on the way home – and excellently performed. 

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 21st November

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