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East of England
posted/updated: 08 Jun 2019 -
The Killing of Sister George
Frank Marcus
society/company: Southend Shakespeare Company (directory)
performance date: 26 Mar 2019
venue: Dixon Studio, Palace Theatre, Southend On Sea
reviewer/s: Tom King (Independent review)

SSC's Sister George has opened to rave reviews! See below from Tom King:-

SOUTHEND Shakespeare Company – which really should subtitle itself the Classic Plays Retrieval Corporation – has dusted down yet another half-forgotten gem, and allowedthat gem once again to glitter.
The Killing of Sister George was a one-hit wonder for Telegraph reviewer Frank Marcus, A big hit in both the West End and on Broadway, it was made into a rather lessnuanced and more graphic film version, starring the original stage lead, Beryl Reid.
It dates from 1965, but has none of the wackiness or radicalism associated with plays born into Swinging London. A traditionally solid and well constructed comedy basedaround the eternal triangle, it was conventional in every way - with one exception. All three contenders in the triangle are women.
This was considered quite groundbreaking, 50 odd years ago, although nowadays it all looks very, well, conventional. So, shorn of any scandal, what is left?
The answer, in in Jacquee Storozynski-Toll's accomplished production, is a comedy of relationships that has lost none of its ability to make us laugh out loud, long and repeatedly. Yet Sister George survives as something more than just a laughter vehicle. As with all the best classic comedies, there is a thread of sadness and loss woven through the story.
The “Sister George” of the title is June, a long-established actress who has achieved the biggest hit of her career as this fictional character. Sister George is a belovedcharacter in a BBC rural soap opera that is not a million miles from The Archers. Well, about three inches, actually.
As the district nurse, George putters around the district on her moped, singing hymns at the top of her voice and dispensing pearls of wisdom and good sense along with the bandages and worm powder.
Times, though, are a-changing (we are in the 60s, after all) and the BBC decides the programme needs jazzing up. Shocking items such as an illegitimate pregnancy arealready muddying the village waters, and now the Beeb decides to kill off Sister George in a gory moped accident. The shock effect will reverberate around the nation, and hopefully give the programme the ratings boost it needs.
June does not take this announcement lying down. Her bitterness and rage convulse her live-in relationship with a much younger woman, Alice, and help to precipitate itscollapse. Their fraught situation turns nuclear with the visit of a smooth BBC administrator. This is the woman charged with organising the killing-off of Sister George. She also turns out to have same-sex designs on young Alice.
This play may be half a century old, but there is nothing that dates it. Both the drama and the comedy of the situation remain as effective as ever. The world it depictsis wholly familiar today, especially in terms of BBC politics, and the blurring of real-life and media fiction for millions of people.
The cast's four actresses play off one another flawlessly. Jo Seymour, in the title role, delivers a multi-layered performance in which all the layers – coarseness, vulnerability,proud professionalism, affection, self-confidence and self-doubt – become destructively entangled. Leah-May Smerdon is perfect as the “female” oppo to June's butch persona. Seemingly meek and submissive, she turns out to be an expert manipulator. Both actressesmanage considerable feats of transformation. You are left asking yourself just who is the real weakling in the partnership.
Sally Lightfoot gets perfectly into the skin of Mercy Croft, the impeccably turned out BBC big cheese, always unruffled and poised, even as she repeatedly and deftlythrusts in the stiletto.
My sole reservation about the play stems from the fourth character, a rather stereotype comic clairvoyant who keeps up a steady stream of future predictions, whether asked to or not. Jane Brown makes a very good fist of the role, and gets more than her fair share of laughs. But the character does seem to have strayed in from another, and more knockabout, comedy.
This character, Madame Xania, seems particularly superfluous as the play deepens and darkens, in its plunge towards the final confrontation. This production treats the ending as irrevocably poignant. Such an approach contrasts to the original West End production, which emphasised June/Sister George's ultimate indomitability. Either way, The Killing of Sister George must still be the only play in the repertoire where the final line, delivered by a talking cow, is “Moo … moo … moo.”


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