Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

27/03/2014 - 05/04/2014

Production Details

Sister George is a beloved character in the popular radio series Applehurst, a district nurse who ministers to the medical needs and personal problems of the local villagers. 

She is played by June Buckridge, who in real life is a gin-guzzling, cigar-chomping, woman, the antithesis of the sweet character she plays. She is often called George in real life. She lives with a younger woman, Alice “Childie” McNaught. But ratings are falling and when June discovers that her character is scheduled to be killed, she becomes increasingly impossible to work and live with.

Marcus’ plays were noted for their strong parts for female actors, such as Sister George, his fourth play. It has enjoyed resurgence, being performed in London in 2011 and New York in 2012. This is a play all about the dynamics of relationships. It will have you laughing, as well as wondering who has the power and who is manipulating whom.

The Globe Theatre, 104 London St
Thursday 27th March 2014 – Saturday 5th April 2014 
7.30 pm apart from Sunday 30 March, 2.00 pm.
No show on Monday 31 March 
Bookings: phone: (03) 477 3274.

June Buckridge:  Stefany Frost 
Alice “Childie” McNaught:  Kimberly Buchan 
Mercy Croft:  Lynne Keen 
Madam Xenia:  Marie Steele 

David Keen 
Rosemary Beresford 
Gareth Treharne 
Andrew Cook 

Stage Manager:  Deanna Beckett 
Lighting Design:  Brian Byas 
Artwork:  Andy Frampton 
Wardrobe:  Nina Duke Howard 
Set:  Ray Fleury/Don Knewstubb/David Holms 

Theatre ,

More than lesbian stereotypes

Review by Barbara Frame 30th Mar 2014

Since its first performance in 1965 The Killing of Sister George has sometimes been criticised, with justification, for its reinforcement of negative lesbian stereotypes. But don’t let this put you off: Frank Marcus’ play, and the Globe’s production, directed by Jeffrey Vaughan, have much more to offer. 

Sister George is a character in Applehurst, a BBC radio serial. June Buckeridge, the actress who plays her, identifies with George so strongly that George has become embedded in her personal life – yet June, a coarse and often violent bully, has little in common with the sweetly optimistic rural nurse. 

The challenging role of June is played by Stefany Frost, whose performance is a little uncertain at times, but sound and well prepared. She’s complemented by the assured acting of Kimberley Buchan as Alice, June’s lover. One of the things Buchan does particularly well is demonstrate that, although Alice is on the receiving end of some inventively sadistic treatment, she’s not as vulnerable as she initially appears, and is in charge of her own life and capable of her own brand of manipulation.

Lynne Keen excels as the splendidly named Mercy Croft, a not-quite parody of a brisk BBC sage. The talents of these three actresses come together particularly well near the end of the second act in a scene anticipating the sticky end of George, whose death is intended to boost Applehurst’s ratings.  Marie Steel adds colour and East European mystery as professional psychic Madame Xenia. 

The play’s themes are dark and, although June is not a sympathetic character, her disintegration as her career and her personal life unravel is sad. But The Killing of Sister George has its own grim humour, and its threads of absurdity prompted little ripples of audience laughter, especially during the final act.  


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Where is the love?

Review by Sharon Matthews 29th Mar 2014

Frank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George is an intriguing, darkly comic play. On one level, it slyly pokes fun at the BBC and the celebrity culture surrounding long-running drama: audience ratings are anxiously examined, cutbacks are expected after microscopic rating drops, and the ‘death’ of a popular star provokes national grieving.

Actress June Buckridge (strongly portrayed by Stefany Frost) plays Sister George, a kindhearted rural district nurse on the popular radio show Applehurst. In real life, June is (to quote the program) “a gin-guzzling, cigar-chomping woman, the antithesis of the sweet character she plays.”  June lives with her much younger flatmate, Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught. When ratings fall, June becomes increasingly fearful about the future of her role. Her anxiety is increased by the repeated visits of the delightfully named Mrs Mercy Croft (Lynne Keen), ex-agony aunt and current BBC administrator.

On another and much deeper level, The Killing of Sister George unfolds as a complex love triangle, a poignant study of emotional dependence and the ‘death’ of love. At the core of the play, June grapples with the potential disintegration of both her public persona and her personal self.  Professionally, June is terrified that her true ‘identity’ as Sister George — signaled by the way in which her character’s name essentially becomes her own — is about to be destroyed. At home, she makes jealous scenes which appear to be triggered by her anxiety and fear over losing the child-like Alice. Frost — who gets some marvelous bitchy dialogue — brings out this aspect of the relationship very well.

Marcus explores patterns of domination and submission in a relationship that is defined by elaborate sadomasochistic rituals. The force of these rituals — Alice is punished by being forced to eat the butt of a cigarette, and must kneel to kiss the hem of June’s dressing gown — is highlighted by the physical and emotional contrast between the two characters. Jean vigorously strides the stage demanding gin; Alice (ably and winsomely played by Kimberley Buchan) writes poetry, cuddles her favorite doll as if it is a real baby, does the baking and makes tea.

Although she appears to be at the mercy of her more dominant flatmate — summed up by her playing the subordinate Laurel to June’s Hardy when the two of them dress up for a costume party — I feel that it is Alice who is really in charge of the relationship. There is a revealing moment when ‘Childie’ begs Mercy Croft for help, stressing her helplessness and lack of choices to the older woman, which really brings out an element of manipulation hidden behind the submissive little-girl behaviour.

Lynne Keen is absolutely perfect as Mercy Croft. The careful smile, the warm voice with well-rounded vowels, the easy flow of conversation about the correct method of baking griddle scones, the suit, the pearls and the carefully chosen hat (the fabulous coat!), are all elements of characterisation that clearly identify her as the iron fist in the well-fitting leather glove. I won’t spell it out for fear of spoiling the surprise, but in one scene there is an incident involving June and two novice nuns in a taxi, which influences the BBC’s decision to kill off her character. As my guest put it: “The news that she must pay penance is brought to June by Mercy Croft who is in fact, a ‘Mother Superior’ of sorts as well.”

Although she considers herself a ‘safe space’ for others in the company to come to with their problems, it becomes clear by the end of the play that Mercy Croft has her own agenda. She is curiously unmoved by the violence of June and Alice’s relationship, even when June flings a griddle scone at Alice in front of her, and there is something uncomfortable about Mercy Croft’s interaction with Alice.  At one point, she ‘plays’ with Alice’s favorite doll, and a later scene in which she comforts the sobbing Alice by calling her “my child” is distinctly creepy. 

Like the 2011 revival at the London Arts Theatre (directed by Iqbakl Khan and featuring Meera Syal as George), director Jeffrey Vaughan chooses to retain the original 1960s setting. In doing so, Vaughan neatly circumvents any dramaturgical problems that might arise from updating the play. Essentially, this is a great example of a classic ‘well made play’; realistic setting, one room, clear passage of time.

However, creating realism and an authentic period feeling can be difficult on a restricted budget. I note a number of design choices out of period, mostly costume related, which I find distracting. At one point, Childie dons a jacket — which is in period, but is missing several buttons. This seems a little odd, especially as that character is introduced as an expert needle-woman who whips up chintzy sofa covers in her spare time.

What really marks it as a period piece is the comic clairvoyant from the flat downstairs who draws heavily upon outmoded stereotypes of the crazy gypsy woman with the thick accent.  However, Marie Steel plays Madam Xenia with such great relish and energy, much to the delight of the audience, that she nearly overrides the faults in the writing.  

While the staged script, to my mind, implies that George and Childie are lovers, and the ending certainly suggests that Mercy Croft is also a lesbian, these sexual elements are never outlined. Most likely, this is due to the time in which the play was written. The original production premiered in 1964 at London’s West End, starring Beryl Reid as Sister George, which would have inhibited the exploration of a subject as taboo as female homosexuality. However, the 1968 feature film version of the play, directed by Robert Aldrich and also starring Beryl Reid, makes the lesbian aspects of the plot explicit.  Critic Melissa Anderson describes this version of The Killing of Sister George as “a lesbian cult classic that has the distinction of being the first ‘serious’ film to receive an X rating” (see full article).

As such, this play is an intriguing and challenging choice for the Globe Theatre and director Vaughan. In some respects The Killing of Sister George is strongly topical, given the way it engages with the illusion of celebrity and in its complex examination of human relationships. I wonder, however, whether by setting the production in the past, the audience is distanced from the tragedy of the characters. The subject matter of same sex relationships is hardly shocking anymore and the way in which the play deals with the topic is perhaps a little dated.

The biggest problem for me, though, is that there seems to be something missing in the play. In a key line, delivered with a dulcet coo by Mercy Croft, Sister George is to be killed off “not because she was hated but because she was loved.” I never quite get the sense of ‘love’ in the relationship between June and Alice, and it is this absence that robs the ending — in which June sits slumped on the sofa abandoned by those who loved her, both Alice and her public — of its tragedy. 


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