Sellotape Sisters – Tristan Bates Theatre, London

Writer: Lee Mattinson
Director: Robert Wolstenholme
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The soap opera probably divides opinion more than any other TV genre; some decry the outlandish plots and expense of churning out 4 or 5 increasingly feeble episodes a week, while their fans adore the communities they represent and the often life-long devotion to the characters. The big hitters Coronation Street and Eastenders have a combined longevity of more than 90 years, love them or loathe them, there’s no denying their place in popular culture, making them ripe for spoof and satire.

One of Weatherfield’s former ‘story-associates’ Lee Mattinson has created an affectionate one-act comedy that sends up the wobbly production values for an imaginarysoap, while taking a rather pointed look at the cost of hidden homosexuality. It’s 1966 and Sellotape Sisters is about to produce its final ever episode after years of creaky plots and stagey acting. The day before the live broadcast lead actors Ethel and Phyllis discover that their real life affair has become the final twist for the characters and fear it will ruin their careers. As the cameras roll will they play the final scene and what will it really cost them?

The play has three scenes, the first set in Ethel’s dressing room as the actors discover what has been planned for them, the second showing the live recording itself and a final scene merging the aftermath of the show with events 30 years later. Mattinson takes a slightly different approach in each one, with the first, and probably least successful, taking an affectionate side-swipe at the conceited and gossipy nature of actors, bitching in the dressing room and faking sincerity. There are some nice lines and it sets up the main event quite nicely but feeds our existing view of actorly flamboyance.

The humour ratchets-up in scene two recording that final episode, with more than a little borrowed from Acorn Antiques without any of its production budget. Mattinson’s writing here is working on two levels so the audience is treated to the surface jokes about the clunky soap set in Werewolf Hall, with neighbouring manner houses “Jerry Hall”, “Stuart Hall” and “Roy Castle”, as well as absurd plot twists as a whole village dies of plague – where else would you hear lines such as “enjoy your spam extravaganza”. But there is a second layer in which the knowing audience sees the characters actively trying to go off –script and avoid the fate the soap writers have in store for them, which is cleverly handled by the cast.

But Mattinson throws a final curveball, with a much darker final scene that, despite its slightly ‘message-of-the-week’ approach, manages to be quite moving and genuinely poignant. Much of this is down to Charlotte Weston’s pitch perfect performance as Ethel who plays Lady Cordelia in the soap. Weston has a real old school TV glamour, so her Ethel is full of dignity and class that manages to balance the cruder comedy moments with the brittle internal struggle of having to hide her sexuality for the sake of her career, while her Lady Cordelia moments are a slightly more exaggerated and less riled version of the actress she plays off-screen.

Equally impressive is Jonny Freeman as Rupert / Carlito the butler who offers two entirely different people, the camp character actor hiding his bitterness behind a thin veil of politeness, and the bumbling butler whose missed cues and addiction to trays is pure Mrs Overall. Kellie Batchelor’s Phyllis is the least successful of the three, retaining a single loud pitch throughout and, although she has a more open personality than Ethel, there wasn’t quite enough difference between the soap actor and the character of Lady Diana.

“Low concept, high drama” is how Ethel refers to Sellotape Sisters but Mattinson’s play reveals a genuine fondness and technical understanding of how soap operas are constructed and managed. There is certainly more humour to be drawn from the first scene but it’s clear that Sellotape Sisters has plenty to say about the relationship between sexuality and fame, as well as an abiding love for the soap opera format. Despite their detractors, these dramas have had a major social influence, changing views of HIV, transgender characters and euthanasia to name a few. Ropey they may be at times but, in Mattinson’s affectionate tribute, soap operas remain a force to be reckoned with.

Runs until 20 August| Image: Contributed

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