Being a long running cast member of a soap, whether on TV or radio, must be fraught with tensions. Each week you wait for your script, never sure whether you’re about to star in a major new storyline or..horrors..face the axe.
It arrives by messenger, you flick over the pages, and, phew, relief, you’re there to pick up another pay cheque.
Frank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George caused a storm when it was first staged 50 years ago, not least because there was suggestion that the story involved lesbianism at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.
Today we’re more liberal-minded and our fascination is with the machinations of the BBC and its ratings-chasing studio bosses who hire and fire without rhyme or reason.
Artful Theatre’s revival of The Killing of Sister George, which opened on Wednesday at Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop is bold, brazen and beautifully told.
This fabulous new performance space, above the Eel Brook Pub, could do with more sound-proofing (Wednesday night’s show had to compete with a bar full of noisy punters) but nothing could detract from Sioned Jones’ dynamic and confident turn in the central role.
Jones plays lipstick lesbian and actress June Buckridge (much more glam than Beryl Reid’s original turn in role), a cigar-smoking, gin-swigging, sadist who has spent the past six years being the caring, motherly district nurse, Sister George, in the BBC radio soap, Applehurst (a thinly disguised Ambridge, home of The Archers).
“They are going to murder me!” she announces one day to her “flat-mate” Alice, nicknamed Childie, after flouncing dramatically out of rehearsals.
Making a grab for the Gordons she blurts out that there have been knowing-winks and sly comments from other cast members on the set that make her fear for her future as a national treasure.
“Applehurst is more than just a community,” she bleats into her neat gin, “It’s a way of life!”
She fears the worse when the terribly nicely-spoken BBC mandariness, Mrs Mercy Croft (all twin-sets, pearls and cut-glass accent), turns up at the flat.
But, after a dressing down for June’s drunken attack in a taxi on two nuns (“I thought they were ravens!”), it looks as though the star’s fears are unfounded…or are they?
The Killing of Sister George gives us a behind-the-scenes entrée into the world of show-business, acting and the power plays that makes it thrive.
Director Scott Le Crass references the 1960s with the shabby apartment set and clothes but, actually, the story is timeless.
Just think of any soap, from The Archers to Corrie and EastEnders, and we are all enthralled by producers’ occasional culls that see the demise of famous faces.
June/George are interchangeable. June’s received pronunciation, so essential for an actress, is frequently replaced with her country “George” accent and she talks of plot-lines as though it’s her real life.
Amid the bitchy and, occasionally, absurd comedy, is a much darker side. There’s a shocker late in the production not to mention June’s awful, controlling, behaviour towards her “young” friend.
Sioned Jones dominates the play with a powerful and charismatic performance as the fiery George whose moods switch, in an instant, from much-loved character actor to foul-mouthed demonic monster.
Briony Rawle’s subtle and, as it later appears, manipulative, turn of Childie is a well-judged portrait of innocence.
She dresses like a fresh-faced teen, and has a liking for collecting dolls and wearing Alice bands. But, while she appears a domestic goddess, whipping up griddle scones at a moment’s notice, there is something decidedly unlikable and unhinged about her, not least her opportunism.
The play’s true mirth comes from George’s wonderfully eccentric neighbour, the clairvoyant, Madam Xenia, played with true flamboyance by Janet Amsden, while Sarah Shelton’s excellent performance as the sweetly scheming Mrs Mercy epitomises everything we have come to despise in the dear old Beeb.
Top class entertainment.
The Killing of Sister George plays at the London Theatre Workshop until November 21.
The Killing of Sister George
The hatchet is out for national treasure, actress June Buckridge, in this bold, beautifully acted, anniversary revival of The Killing of Sister George at London Theatre Workshop.