Sister George's unspoken appeal . . .
PUBLISHED: 15:12 11 April 2015 | UPDATED: 15:12 11 April 2015
The Killing of Sister George was a milestone in British theatre. David Henshall discovers that the play has lost none of its power to entertain
It was all so different then. Everybody knew it went on but it was not much mentioned in polite society. Today if two women want to live together, even get married, they are often happy for the world to know about it. In the mid-1960s they kept this sort of affaire under wraps.
It was not illegal, as male homosexuality was until 1967, it was just not talked about. This is why The Killing of Sister George made such a stir in 1965. There was no mention of lesbianism in Frank Marcus’s play but because the story being set out on stage was so clearly that sort of association, it was widely accepted as such.
There was no such coyness when the script was rewritten by Luke Heller for the movie version directed by Robert Aldrich in 1968. The relationships between the two women principals – and some of the other characters – were much more explicit and the film has become one of the icons of gay cinema.
The play features Sister George, a much-loved nurse in a popular radio series called Applehurst, looking after the medical and personal problems of villagers. In real life she is June Buckhurst, a gin-guzzling, cigar-chomping, slightly masochistic masculine woman, mostly referred to as George, and she lives with Alice “Childie” McNaught, a younger, less worldly woman, who she frequently abuses verbally and, sometimes, physically.
George has a visit from Mercy Croft, an executive of the radio programme, who says her character in the series is to be killed off and as a result she becomes more and more difficult to work and live with. Croft offers to intercede on George’s behalf, supposedly to help, but she has an agenda of her own.
Although the suggestion is strongly there that George and Childie are an item – and, by the end, Mercy shows the same sexual inclinations – the relationship is never specifically stated. Frank Marcus intended the play as a dark comedy or farce, not a serious look at lesbianism and John Hood intends to treat the play in exactly that way.
He is directing The Killing of Sister George for Megabrill Productions at the Sir John Mills Theatre next week. He says: “George has a companion called Childie and it is staged back in the days when any suggestion of a gay relationship was kept under cover. She plays a gentle, kind-hearted nurse in the radio soap – a bit like The Archers and, some say, it was based on that series – but in real life she is June Buckridge, a temperamental gin-loving, cheroot-smoking strong woman for whom her role in Applehurst is everything.
“Everybody calls her George but, because there are rumours abounding about her somewhat shocking private life, the show’s executives decide to kill her off and Mercy Croft is the assassin. George becomes very spiteful about this, especially when it is obvious later that Mercy has taken a shine to Childie.
“It’s a vintage dark comedy and I think it endures today as a modern stage classic. The lesbianism is very understated. It’s really about the breakdown of a relationship, regardless of who is involved, and about the devastating effect that occurs when one of the main purposes of George’s life, her acting, is taken away from her. What is she going to do and how will all this impact on her partner?”
Childie is sometimes described as a bit dimwitted and childish. “Yes, but it’s almost a guise. She’s actually quite a manipulative woman, specifically in her dealings with Mercy Croft. She knows what she wants and Croft is a way for her to get out of her relationship intact. She’s smart and manipulative – and so is Mercy. So you end up feeling George has got the rough end of the stick, even if she’s a rumbustious character.”
George and Childie have been together for seven years and appear to have had a good relationship – we see them dressed as Laurel and Hardy for a fancy dress do – but it is a one-side affaire with George dominating things. She’s aggressive and threatens Childie and Childie’s doll collection - as well as herself.
John Hood laughingly suggests perhaps the breakdown is “that old seven-year itch thing” but Mercy Croft has a big hand in matters, She clearly fancies Childie and, with the ratings for Applehurst starting to slip and the likelihood that George’s rowdy behaviour will one day become public knowledge – there had already been a narrowly-avoided scandal with a couple of nuns in a taxi – it is decided that Sister George will be run down by a ten-tonne truck.
The Applehurst producers feel that, in spite of George’s popularity in the programme, this dramatic exit will stir audience reaction and that the introduction of a new character will keep people listening. To add insult to injury, Mercy offers George the part of Clarabell the Cow in a children’s series
Jayne Lindill is Sister George, with Petra Risberger as Childie and Sharon Hulm as Mercy. Philip Steward plays Madame Xenia, a sort of transgender character who believes he is a woman and calls himself a psychometric.
The Killing of Sister George is at Sir John Mills from 15 to 18 April. Tickets are available by telephone on 01473 211498 or at www.easternangles.co.uk