Arts Theatre, London WC2
Opened 7 October, 2011
The late Frank Marcus maintained that his 1964 play was not “about” lesbianism, which is just as well since in this respect it has dated considerably. Marcus held that its real subject was the abusive power relationship between June Buckridge, known as Sister George after the character she plays in a popular radio soap, and her lover Alice McNaught, whose nickname “Childie” refers to her compulsion towards infantilism. Unfortunately, in this respect too it has dated considerably. As for the parody of broadcast drama and its audience-seeking imperatives, such as killing off Applehurst’s beloved district nurse Sister George, it has… you guessed it.
Nor, I am afraid, does Iqbal Khan’s production do anything to counteract this. As with his revival of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass currently playing elsewhere in the West End, he trusts the play and the actors to do the work; in this instance, however, the trust proves misplaced. It cannot, nearly half a century on, fend for itself. It is not, for instance, proof against a supporting performance by Helen Lederer (as the couple’s neighbour Madam Xenia) which is so unconcerned with trifles such as remote plausibility of characterisation. Eccentric Eastern European clairvoyant? Fine, bring on the entire kookiness quotient of all the accession states put together.
Conversely, Meera Syal as George is hampered by her innate reasonableness. When George demonstrates her domination of Childie by making her eat a cigar butt or the like, Syal gives off no whiff of real threat. Robert Aldrich’s 1968 film version may have had a script that travestied the play, but Aldrich succeeded in capturing the requisite air of suburban gothic which is entirely absent here, on Ciaran Bagnall’s set with its hint of a huge, old-fashioned radio grille as the back wall. Childie’s eventual disentanglement with George, and taking up with the producer of George’s series Mercy Croft (Belinda Lang), never feels either emotionally difficult or fraught with danger, which leaves simply the impression that these events are taking too damn long. In fact, on the press night, the round of applause which greeted the interval sputtered out when it became apparent that another lengthy scene was yet to be played; the clapping at the actual interval was rather more polite. What was once ground-breaking is now just plodding.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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