BBC Radio 4, 25 April 2009
Frank Marcus' play was a tremendous succes d'estime when it
premiered in London in the mid-1960s. Its subject-matter - the downfall of a soap opera queen enjoying a lesbian relationship
in private - was considered risqué, while the original production (in London and on Broadway) was dominated by a stunning
central performance from Beryl Reid as the eponymous central character. Hitherto she had been known chiefly for her comic
roles on radio and television: Sister George proved beyond all doubt that Reid was a major dramatic actor. She repeated
the role in the film version (1968), and went on to star in the film of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane
a year later.
Listening to Sarah Badel in John Tydeman's revival, I couldn't help being reminded
of Reid herself. Sister George not only plays a leading role in a daytime soap (bearing more than a passing resemblance to
The Archers) but acts as a surrogate mother to her partner Childie (Lucy Whybrow). If Childie crosses her in any
way, Sister George transforms herself into a quasi-satanic figure, drinking vast quantities of gin and causing disturbances
wherever she went. In Badel's performance she appears as someone who could not bear to be left alone, for fear of having
to contemplate the fundamental emptiness of her existence. This seemed uncannily close to Reid herself - although celebrated
in later years as one of comedy's grande dames, with regular appearances on Wogan, she remained an unhappy
woman with a drink problem, who hated spending time on her own. This helps to explain why her performance as
George was so memorable; she was simply playing herself.
Marcus is preoccupied with the idea of celebrity and how it takes over people's
lives. George is so accustomed to her role in the soap that she cannot separate herself from it. Childie is actually not a
child at all, but a lonely woman in her early thirties, who retreats into an infantile world as a way of escaping her past
(having had an unwanted baby in her teenage years). Mercy Croft (Anna Massey), who has a dual role as George's boss at
the BBC and a radio agony aunt, turns out to be a sexual predator who tries to prise Childie away from George and set
her up as a kept woman, with the (false) promise of script-writing assignments. Eventually none of them get what they want:
George is written out of the soap (in a desperate attempt to improve the ratings); Childie had to confront her past, while
Mercy's schemes come to naught.
Marcus shows how absurd this preoccupation with image can be, as George is eventually
offered a new radio role in a children's programme (a "narrative with a modern outlook," as Mercy describes it) as Claribel
the cow. With nothing left in her life except facades, George had no option other than to accept it. The play ends with her
rehearsing her part as she tries to learn how to moo in a dramatic manner.
John Tydeman's adaptation unfolded as a series of verbal duels, in which the three
protagonists struggled to dominate each other. Babel's George showed considerable vocal virtuosity, which contrasted starkly
with Massey's commonsense yet ruthless speechifying. Mercy's attitude belied her name; she was prepared to exploit anyone
to achieve what she wanted. Whybrow's Childie seemed happy to play second fiddle to both of them; but she ran away once her
illusions had collapsed.
Billed on the BBC website as a black comedy, The Killing of Sister
George is rather a study in loneliness, and how it haunts all three protagonists, despite their efforts to overcome it.