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Sellotape Sisters
Tristan Bates Theatre
18th August 2016

★★★★☆

Publicity photograph for Sellotape Sisters

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Although the play within a play concept remains very popular to this day (ooh, Shakespeare, you trendsetter, you), given Lee Mattinson used to write for Corrie, it's entirely apt that his play Sellotape Sisters instead contains a soap opera within it. Actors Ethel Lewis-Lane (Charlotte Weston), Phyllis Dix (Kellie Batchelor) and Rupert de Menthe (Jonny Freeman) are getting ready for the finale of Sellotape Sisters, a long-running soap which their network is cancelling due to falling numbers. The last episode is to be aired live, with a predicted one-off spike in viewers of an impressive 22 million. Ethel and Phyllis are looking forward to going out on a high, when Rupert points out the latest and last twist - a love story between their characters Lady Cordelia and Lady Diana. The problem? It's 1966. Not a good year to not be straight.

Now, being a lesbian has never actually been illegal in the UK, but you have to bear in mind that this play is set around the same time that repeated attempts to legislate for equal rights for gay men had been shot down. Although milestone legislation was enacted the following year, it would be fair to say public opinion towards lesbians and gays was still "lukewarm" at best. Given Ethel's chosen career and the importance of ordinary folk liking her, you cannot blame her for being absolutely terrified of agreeing to take part in the storyline. Following an initial fit of panic, she's very controlled and cold, however her palpable fear can still be seen beneath the surface at all times. She may love her co-star in real life, but Ethel is damned if she's letting her scriptwriter reveal that to the world so publicly.

To a certain extent, it does feel like the first act is treading water. Weston in particular has some deliciously cutting deadpan delivery, Batchelor is a more emotional and yet still a reasonably calm contrast, and Freeman ramps up the camp, with a stereotypically overblown delivery. It's enjoyable, there's nothing technically to fault, however it seems to be lacking something. It becomes apparent though that this first act is designed to set up all the jokes for the second act, which is gloriously funny. After dissecting just how badly written the soap is, we get to see it in action, and it's a hilarious parody of the genre with director Robert Wolstenholme highlighting all of its failures. Impeccable timing and delivery makes fun of faux-bad writing, deliberately missed cues and apparent camera problems - if you've ever seen any episode of any soap ever, you'll find this so acutely observed.

The tone switches once more in the final act. Again, there's excellent timing from all three actors, but the mood shifts from farce to tragedy, with some very poignant lines thrown in. The speeches are touching, important and may well cause you to sniffle, if not shed a tear. The lives of the three actors post-Sellotape Sisters is believable and tragic, with Rupert's role in the anniversary celebrations drawing attention to the difficulty of many supporting actors to ever make it big in their own right. Again, Mattinson can't seem to resist the opportunity to make a clever (if slightly depressing) observation.

Despite the (welcome) flurry of gay theatre in recent years, it still seems to be rare that lesbian characters ever occupy the leading roles. Sellotape Sisters is a fabulous piece of theatre in its own right - it make us laugh, cry and everything in between - however props too to Mattinson for creating a story with two very strong female roles.

Sellotape Sisters opened on 15th August and runs until 20th August 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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