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Sappho leaves Ambridge: The Killing of Sister George

3 November 2016

The Killing of Sister George

by Frank Marcus

Park Players at The Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre until 5th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Sapphic sadist, vulnerable alcoholic or jealous geriatric?  These are the character traits of George that are revealed and dissected in Frank Marcus’ 1965 play The Killing of Sister George.

Park Players’ current production, which opened last night to an enthusiastic audience in the intimate space of the Coward Studio, was a tightly cast, crisply acted production that had both broad humour and touching pathos.

Who is George? Is she June Buckridge, a feted actress, albeit coming towards the end of her career; or is she the district nurse, Sister George, a beloved character, doing kind deeds for all as she pop-pops on her moped across Applehurst, singing rousing hymns? Applehurst is a highly popular and long established radio programme about country folk in an archetypal English village. As the BBC executive puts it, “It is real to millions … it stands for all that is great in British life”. Herein lies the rub! June Buckridge and Sister George have merged into the same person, not only in the public eye, but even in Buckridge’s own mind and that of her close circle.  She is feted in more senses than one, as her weekends are spent in opening country fairs and village shows. Other times she is firmly ensconced in her London flat, overlooking (or being overlooked by?) Broadcasting House.

Buckridge shares her flat, and her life, with Alessandra, an Italian girl, who, in spite of Buckridge’s maltreatment of her remains loyal … but subservient. She is known as Alice, but Buckridge, in their intimate moments, calls her Childie. Their Lesbian relationship is overshadowed by Buckridge’s sadistic treatment of her. Childie is deliberately humiliated by being forced to prostate herself, to eat a cigar butt, and to drink used bathwater. Her usual attire in the flat is in her underwear, or in a baby-doll nightie. Childie loves Victorian dolls and this infantile image is both encouraged and derided by Buckridge.

In contrast to her mild-mannered fictional character, Sister George, Buckridge is a much more abrasively robust personality.   She has narrowly avoided being sacked for punching a BBC producer, a sort of female Jeremy Clarkson. Later, we learn that, while drunk, she has also physically assaulted two nuns in a taxi-cab!! Two of the factors that exacerbate Buckridge’s behaviour are her inherent insecurity and her addiction to neat gin. When it becomes increasingly clear that the character of Sister George is to be axed from the radio series, her insecurity intensifies her conduct and the more she hits the gin-bottle, the more she hits Childie.

The erratic and eccentric June Buckridge was played with gusto by Astrid Maslen, depicting the contrast between her coarse bluster and edgy nervousness. “Overwrought, my arse!”, she replies when being confronted with this very contrast. The masculinity of posture movement belying a matronly figure was a physical dichotomy of the character well realised by Maslen. She also does drunk well, an art not easy to achieve by many actors.

Anna Alfieri’s spirited Childie beautifully balanced petulance with acquiescence, immaturity with sophistication, and abjection with objection. Her gestures and body-language spoke of Childie’s abused condition and infantile nature, toes turned in, feet a-swirl, biting lip. The whole character was well-drawn.   The pitifully dejected, “I might have had babies” was followed a few moments later by a stinging riposte to Buckridge, “I am not married to you!”.

Friend, neighbour and general factotum around the block of flats is Madame Xenia, who is also a clairvoyant, or psychometrist as she prefers to be called. When the possibility of Sister Gorge being killed off from the script of Applehurst starts to become a distinct possibility, Buckridge summons Mdm. Xenia to consult the tarot. Played deliciously OTT by Maggie Tolme, Mdm. Xenia brought a much-needed sense of lightness to the action and, in spite of her profession, a sense of reality. Tolmie clearly enjoyed this role immensely, and transmitted that enjoyment to the audience.  All east-European mystique and jangly jewellery, she was a delight.

When the BBC executive, Mrs Mercy Croft, arrives Buckridge knows that Mdm Xenia’s tarot could be right, and when she makes repeated visits, the writing is on the wall. Croft is assured and overbearing, but unctuously ingratiating. She wears a false air of concern that unsettles the pair. A measured performance by Sarah Brindley was spot-on for the role, precise and penetrating, starched as a matron’s apron, sharp as an assassin’s knife.

In due course, we hear the radio transmission, the death of Sister George, not during an errand of charity, as Buckridge would have wanted, but by riding her moped under the wheels of a lorry. We hear the bucolic voices greeting the sainted Sister, the screech and bang, the farm labourer saying “Why ’ere, that be Sister George”, a tear-jerker broken by the yokel’s bluff reply, “It were!”.

Mercy Croft’s final coup de grace comes when Buckridge returns for running a (final?) bath, to find her passionately kissing Childie, before taking her away to be her own “personal assistant”. To add insult to injury, Croft had already offered Buckridge the role of a cow in a forthcoming children’s broadcast. The play ends with the defeated Buckridge collapsing in a chair and balefully letting out one word, “Moo!”: a moment of superb bathos.

Clearly there is more than a passing resemblance to The Archers, and in view of the present shenanigans in Ambridge, the play has red-hot topicality. (In 1964, when the the play was set, the resonance would have been with the death of Grace Archer). Equally topical is The Killing of Sister George ‘s scathing view on popular culture: broadcast executives dumbing down, whilst their audience are reluctant to come to terms with society’s changing values.

The referencing of The Archers is quite blatant in the aggravating ear-worm jingle for Applehurst, recorded with some glee for this production by the modestly named woodwind quartet, Musica Medioca.

Malcom Watton’s set is simple allusion to the pair that lives there, Buckridge’s horse brasses and Chidie’s dolls being the ornamentation. One couldn’t help thinking though that a successful actress might have had a more ostentatious apartment, but perhaps (but perhaps) she spent it all on gin. Talking of gin, there were some anachronisms: would Bombay Sapphire or Portmeirion been around in 1964? However, Pamela Bosanquet’s costumes were scrupulously accurate to the period. Mdm Xenia’s beehive and Indian cotton were a delight, and how about Buckriges’ final outfit: tweed ladies suit, thick Lisle stocking and “sensible” shoes.

Under the wonderful one-liners that make this such a funny play, it grapple s some very dark themes, but the Park Players cast have successfully melded laughter and pathos. Ambiguity in relationships is a connecting theme in the play. Buckridge’s dominatrix demeanour and bizarre fetishist fantasies suggest that she is in control, but this belies the complexity of the relationship between George and Childie (and the subtlety in the writing of The Killing of Sister George).   Moreover, the constantly changing dynamics of power, victim turning aggressor only to become further prey, also makes this a difficult play to pull off, but director Bob Diley has smoothly accomplished this feat.

 Mark Aspen

November 2016

 

 

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From → Drama, Reviews

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