Meera Syal didn't have any problems relating to her part as
Sister George - a fictional radio character who is killed off by
BBC scriptwriters. The intense paranoia familiar to most actors is
all too close to home but far more than that she says, "We've all
been in those self destructive relationships when you know they are
slipping away, so you are more horrible to them."
She's referring to the abusive relationship between 'Applehurst'
radio star June 'Sister George' Buckridge and her long-suffering
younger partner, Alice (aka 'Childie'). "It was that bit of it that
I understood, when the director (Iqbal Khan) and I talked about it;
we felt there was genuine love there but it is incredibly unhealthy
and it's a power struggle once sex is involved - that terrible need
and loss and longing."
And, crucially, it's a dysfunctional relationship between two
women; one of our earliest Sapphic depictions, which at the time of
its movie release in 1966 split lesbian opinion. This point is not
lost on Syal who says, "I completely understand where the film was
coming from and how much of a bold political statement it was:
[essentially] 'here we are and we're not going to apologise for it'
and I can see why it's quite an important film for lots of people
and why it's a piece that really divides the community too and that
some feel it was giving lesbians a bad name…it can be taken in
quite different ways."
As an asian performer Syal understands the problems inherent in
the way that we universalize the experience of minority groups and
that with a limited repertoire of characters people will always be
disappointed in the way these characters end up being seen to
'represent' an entire community.
"I've been offered parts that aren't exactly PC and I've
received comments such as 'oh that's what asians are like, are
they?' And of course what you want to say is, 'it's what these
particular ones are doing.' Why assume that everything you do
becomes representative? You have to hope you keep creative, create
more work and cast in an imaginative way…casting is conservative by
its nature and [Sister George] is an amazing production with four
amazing parts for women."
Helen Lederer agrees and when we talk she admits she's driving
her husband's car with a hangover. "Not a good combo, is it?" How
does she think the story is relevant for lesbians today? "Well,
it's about power and loneliness and it's so good that it's there
because it's provocative. Whether it's useful, I don't know. It
gets people talking at least and in the main [theatre] remains a
camp tradition of [male] gayness but I do agree that there's a
particularity regarding lesbians and women in this." To say [as
heterosexual playwright Frank Marcus did in 1965] that the fact
that the characters were lesbians was irrelevant is disingenuous,
Lederer believes. "They protest too much."
Although none of the cast is gay, Syal says she got offers from
women in the 1980s, "Women in feminist movement. I just didn't want
to do the dropping the women thing afterwards that a lot of people
did. The funny thing is though a lot of women of my generation get
on better with women. I was brought up in a matriarchal community
The cult 1966 film which was based on Marcus' play famously
starred Beryl Reid as Sister George and Susannah York as her
live-in lover. How did Syal want to bring something new to the
"It's easy to play [Sister George] as a wounded monster and it
was really important to bring up the humanity of both people who
were in love and to really humanise George. And if it opens a
debate about [issues about lesbian relationships] its worth doing
for that alone."
Until October 29 (020 7907 7092, artstheatrewestend.co.uk).