Long before #Vausman and #Sharman made girls loving girls a staple of our TV viewing habits, another lesbian storyline rocked the nation. ‘The Killing of Sister George’, written by Frank Marcus, undoubtedly paved the way for the #Bettina’s we know today. Produced first as a stage play in 1965, followed by cult movie in 1968, ‘Sister George’ gave birth to a new genre.
Now, 50 years on, ‘Sister George’ is back, hitting the London stage in a new production by ‘Artful Theatre’ (www.artfultheatre.co.uk). Playing from 29th October – 21 November at the London Theatre Workshop, in Fulham, this 50th Anniversary production seeks to move away from the ‘sensible shoe wearing’ stereotypes of its predecessors.
The play charts the fall from grace of actress ‘June Buckridge,’ better known as alter ego ‘Sister George’, in a fictional BBC radio drama. June’s world heads into a tailspin, as she struggles to cope with her disintegrating career and relationship with, younger lover, ‘Childie’. Being the first British play to feature a lesbian couple; in the 1960’s, it was a ‘disaster wherever it went’. Today, the challenge lies more with how accustomed modern audiences are to gay culture.
How do you make the play resonate when same sex couples no longer shock? ‘Artful Theatre’ Producer, Justin Savage, feels this presents less of a challenge and more of an opportunity.
He told me
In 1965 it was the implied lesbian aspect of the piece that gave it a certain notoriety. However the play is so well crafted that the other themes; control, manipulation, duplicity, passion and dependency, can be seen and explored even more clearly without the “oh my goodness! Women living together!” shock factor that it had in the 1960s.”
Refreshingly, ‘Artful’ place the emphasis on telling the story. Believing labelling to be pretty much defunct in 2015, this production enables its four female characters to go on a journey, irrespective of sexuality. As Justin points out, ‘gay culture is at a point where one could safely remove the ‘gay’ adjective; it’s just ‘culture’.
What ‘Artful’ do, so wonderfully, is take the ‘issue’ out of the drama. Traditionally, the function of gay characters has been just that; to be a ‘gay character’. So often sexuality is the story. We are moving towards a time where someone being gay, bi, heterosexual, or whatever, is a side-line. It’s not the main attraction. I have no doubt we will reach a point where the sexuality of all characters is secondary to the action. ‘Sister George’ has been resurrected many times over the years. ‘Artful’ are the first company not to portray ‘George’ as a legs spread, butch stereotype; and I applaud them for this.
The lesbian audience, in particular, want characters they can relate too. There is no such thing as the ‘blue print’ lesbian of yesteryear. We have seen complex emotional struggles played out between gay couples, in everything from The L Word, to Blue Is The Warmest Colour.
Engaging a modern day audience requires the emotional excavation to go a lot deeper than the 1968 movie dared to. As boundary pushing as it was, by never quite breaking the emotional surface; the relationship between Beryl Reid and Susannah York didn’t really scan. Comparing it to a modern dynamic of ‘Bette and Tina’, for example, Reid and York just don’t come across as a believable couple (albeit one hanging onto a few dying embers of a sadomasochistic relationship!).
In 1984, the play toured the UK once more, again starring Beryl Reid. This time, Theatre Producer Ann Pinnington was at the helm for ‘Portman Theatrical Productions’.
Even then, they felt unable to go too far. She can remember thinking ‘is the provincial audience ready for this?’ However, Ann’s love of placing fascinating women on stage was one of the driving forces behind the tour.
It has been a feature of of her career since then, as’ Ann Pinnington Productions’, Producer at ‘The New End’, and Co-Artistic Director of the Kings Head; as well as bringing iconic shows such as ‘The Kings Speech’ and ‘Positive’ to the stage.
Ann agrees with ‘Artful’, that the play is more about human nature and that we are all the same, whatever our sexual preference. For her, ‘Sister George’ centres around ‘people, relationships, emotion and the outcome’ and the idea that sexuality is only part of a person; not the whole.
This seems to fit intrinsically with the ‘Artful’ production. As Justin Savage told me, ‘This is a play about four very strong individuals, none of whom are quite what they appear to be at first sight.
The interplay between all four characters makes us stop, think, laugh and draw a sharp intake of breath as we marvel at both the frailty and resilience of the human condition.’ For a 2015 audience, I believe this is the way to go and I am certain, whether you are straight, gay, bi or just plain curious; this production will offer a fresh take on an old classic.
‘The Killing of Sister George’ opens on 29th October 2015 and runs until 21st November 2015 at the London Theatre Workshop, in Fulham. Tickets are £15/£12 and can be purchased at www.londontheatreworkshop.co.uk Directed by Scott Le Crass for ‘Artful Productions’ and starring Sioned Jones, Briony Rawle, Sarah Shelton and Janet Amsden. @SisterGeorgeLon @Artfultheatre