Considered one of the great classics of lesbian theatre, Frank Marcus' 1965 black comedy The Killing of Sister George is revived at the Arts Theatre as part of the "Drama at the Arts" season¹. Although their motivation for doing so is a bit unclear from the programme notes, which suggest that the play's main cultural significance lies in popularising a negative stereotype that lingers to this day, of lesbian couples made up of a terrifying, abusive older bulldyke and a victimised, girly younger partner, who in this case still plays with dolls (though at least the play makes a nod at investigating why the character has infantilised herself so much.) Meera Syal is the former, June Buckridge, a radio soap star who identifies so closely with the titular character that even her partner calls her "George." Casually abusive to her "flatmate" Alice (Elizabeth Cadwallader,) whom she makes eat cigar butts and drink her bathwater if she offends her in any way, June goes even more off the rails when she gets wind of the fact that Sister George is going to be killed off as a ratings-grabber.
Iqbal Khan's production doesn't entirely convince that the play is a classic outside of its historic portrayal of gay women, with the first two acts occasionally coming to life but lapsing into dull patches quite often. The final act does have some much more involving moments as June's carefully constructed facade of not caring about her firing starts to crumble, and Syal portrays her as nicely out of control. There's some funny lines from her BBC boss Mrs Mercy (Belinda Lang) while her downstairs neighbour is a psychic who's clearly meant to be given an OTT performance; which is just as well since they've cast Helen Lederer. I get the feeling there's both more laughs and more genuine darkness lurking in the play that the production doesn't manage to tease out.
The Killing of Sister George by Frank Marcus is booking until the 29th of October at the Arts Theatre.
¹which, yes I know what they're getting at, but it still amuses me as a name for a season - as if it's noteworthy that a theatre is staging plays