The Killing Of Sister George, by Frank Marcus, Proscenium at the Compass Theatre
Born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1928, Frank Marcus fled Nazi oppression in 1939 and found himself at school in England.
During the 1960s he was a very successful playwright and had, at one time, four plays running simultaneously. Since then his reputation has declined, and today he is remembered mainly for The Killing of Sister George. Having suffered from Parkinson's disease, he died in 1996.
The Killing of Sister George premiered on stage in 1964, to great critical acclaim, and was followed by a film version starring Beryl Reid and Susannah York. Marcus was highly critical of the film, which featured what he described as a gratuitous lesbian scene, something that did not feature in the original play. He always maintained that his play was not about lesbians, but about 'oppressive paternalism'.
Based loosely on the death of Grace Archer in BBC Radio 4's The Archers, the play focuses on Sister George, a popular district nurse in the fictional radio soap Applehurst. She is portrayed by June Buckridge, in reality a gin-guzzling, cigar-chomping, domineering lesbian, the complete antithesis of her radio character.
June lives with the simple, and much younger, 'Childie' McNaught, whom she verbally and physically abuses.
When June discovers that her scandalous behaviour has resulted in an executive decision to kill off her character, she becomes increasingly impossible to live and work with. Mercy Croft, an executive from the radio station, attempts to ease the situation, but ultimately has her own agenda, and finally lures Childie away from June.
There is no doubt that when the play premiered in the 1960s, its subject matter was shocking and controversial. Audiences then were not accustomed to seeing attractive young women being forced to eat cigar butts and drink bath water. Nowadays, however, it does not pack the same kind of punch. Towards the end of the play, it is fairly obvious how it's all going to end, but it takes a little too long to get to the point, and I couldn't help but wonder whether Marcus, like Dickens, was being paid a set sum for each word.
This play may not have been altogether to my taste but, in the hands of Proscenium, any production is worth watching. The acting is always of a superbly high standard, allowing the audience to forget, for a couple of hours, that they are watching actors and not real characters.
Linda Hampson was brilliantly formidable as the eponymous heroine, a character you love to hate but who, ultimately and rather confusingly, you feel sorry for.
An equally impressive performance came from Christina You as Childie, whom she portrayed as a sweet, naive creature, a beautiful butterfly who seemed somehow destined to be forever the victim of these appalling, calculating older women.
As Mercy, Kathleen Jones was the perfect example of the iron fist in a velvet glove, all apparent oily sweetness and light, while in reality so ruthless and manipulative.
Proscenium will be back at the Compass Theatre in early November with Alan Bennett's The Lady in the Van. See www.proscenium.org.uk for more information.