The Killing of Sister George

Frank Marcus

Derby Playhouse

(2008)

Review by Steve Orme

Eight months after being forced to close, Derby Playhouse is back producing live theatre, although its previous financial problems have yet to be resolved.

A promised £300,000 from a mystery benefactor which has been earmarked for the theatre's creditors has still to be handed over - but in the meantime the Playhouse is up and running with the blessing of its administrators and trying to succeed without Arts Council or local authority grants.

As soon as you enter the building, it's clear everything isn't the same: the café next to the box office is closed and the glossy programme typical of all provincial theatres has been replaced by a 12-page information sheet which costs £1.50.

But on entering the auditorium you get the impression that there've been no cuts to the production budget because Sue Mayes' lavish set perfectly presents the image of a 1960s upmarket London flat.

The Playhouse had declared that after the "stress and uncertainty" of the past few months theatregoers deserved a good laugh. They brought in Cal McCrystal to direct The Killing of Sister George and trumpeted the fact that he had directed Joe Orton's Loot at Derby five years ago, a production I described as "extremely funny" and a "resounding success".

But the following year McCrystal directed Alan Bennett's Kafka's Dick in the same theatre, a production I said was "as disappointing as Loot was refreshing".

So how is The Killing of Sister George? Unfortunately I found it had the same effect on me as Kafka's Dick.

The problem I have with it is that McCrystal has gone for an off-the-wall treatment, with the four actors all adopting an over-the-top approach. Perhaps the director thought this was the best way to bring out the comedy because the characters aren't particularly likeable and don't evoke much sympathy.

The upshot is that the only actor who emerges from the play with any credibility is Carla Mendonca as the deliciously affected BBC executive Miss Mercy Croft whose position and class allow her to pursue her selfish ends.

Jenny Éclair takes the role of Sister George, the star of the radio soap opera Applehurst. She appears onstage at the beginning of the evening to inform the audience that the show can't go on because of an enormous technical hitch - only to reveal that she's joking.

She introduces the rest of the cast, imparts information about the characters and the actors themselves and also engages in banter with people in the first couple of rows.

Her performance is good without being ground-breaking; while her stand-up experience gives greater depth to her stage presence, she seems not to have the discipline to stick to the script.

Catherine Hamilton as love interest Alice McNaught and Joy McBrinn as eccentric clairvoyant Madame Xenia do their best to inject humour but are fighting a losing battle in the confines of the directorial wackiness.

Good to see Derby Playhouse open again - but with the theatre's long-term future still in doubt, perhaps the management ought to have chosen something with greater appeal to pull in occasional theatregoers as well as diehard supporters.

"The Killing of Sister George" runs until October 18th