We live in an age when lesbian characters are allowed to kiss on a primetime TV soap, and when a soap star can hit the headlines for, say, attending to her boyfriend's medical needs while parked on a lay- by, with little fear of damaging the show's ratings. Frank Marcus's 1965 comedy The Killing of Sister George takes us back to staider times.
Here, a drunken incident with a couple of nuns in a taxi results in a memo from the head of religious broadcasting and a stern warning about public image for June Buckridge, the lesbian actress who has won national fame as loveable, moped-riding "Sister George", the rural district nurse in a radio soap. As for the programme itself, it seems, from the heavy- handedly parodic snippets we hear, to have been modelled on Noddy and Big Ears, though without the earthiness and cynicism. Given that the decision to kill off George's character is taken partly to introduce new "values" to the show, it's a pity that the old values and concomitant conventions are caricatured to the point of incredibility.
But then Mark Rayment's entertaining revival at the Ambassadors fails to convince you that the play has found sufficiently interesting connections between its various elements: the portrayal of June's possessive sado- masochistic relationship with Childe, an arrested 34-year-old woman; its comic look at the blurring of fantasy and reality, role and actress in the world of soap; and the droll comparison of Sister George's demise and its effect on the ratings to the anthropological rite whereby primitive societies are purged and "rededicated" through the sacrifice of the most loved member of the community. George sometimes forgets she's actually June and, indeed, takes it as a personal insult to "her" years of devoted nursing when characters are written out on an illness storyline. But this confusing of identities makes no real impact on the area where it might have the most intriguing dramatic consequences: her stormy relationship with Childe, which began, we hear, a year before June got the part, thus ruling out the possibility that it's George whom Childe loves. The link between the actress's two lives (that they both involve her in a pretend world) is too loosely forged.
That aspect of the play is well brought out here, though, and Miriam Margolyes, who is capable of switching with disarming speed from jaunty, vodka-fuelled middle-aged tomboy to overbearing, baleful bully, has the makings of an excellent George. It's a very funny portrayal, but it could do with a bit more unpleasantness. An actress has to risk alienating the audience, and there's never any danger of that, with Margolyes playing up to the punters, giving George's sadistic streak the winning air of the panto villain.
The performance of the evening comes from Serena Evans. She brings a total credibility to the role of George's peaky, waif-thin, thumb-sucking captive, who simply switches prisons and becomes "the little girl" of the woman who axed George. This is not a play that's likely to be accused of peddling positive images.
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