Radio Review: An Interlude of Men / De Wife of Bristol / In the Depths of Dead Love

“It’s a blip when you’re 25, after 55 it’s a shambles”

Lesley Bruce’s An Interlude of Men is blessed with a brilliant pair of performances, Deborah Findlay and Barbara Flynn play Bren and Hilly whose lifelong friendship is thoroughly explored when Bren comes to stay and help as Hilly’s broken her wrist. They revisit girlhood memories and lament the time they drifted apart a little due to each being married and in the cosy warmth of nostalgia, they start to plan for a future together reclaiming that lost time. Bruce cleverly structures the rhythm of the play around the heady emotion of their initial reunion and the subsequent cooling off period and though it ends on a rather plaintive note, it sings with hard-won authenticity.

Riffing off of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, Edson Burton’s De Wife of Bristol is a wryly amusing take on the classic tale of one of the more vibrant characters in The Canterbury Tales and transplanted to the modern day, it gains real currency in its new location in the Afro-Caribbean community. Lorna Gayle’s Clarissa da Costa is a retired woman who has worked her way through a number of husbands and is now dispensing marital advice to recently arrived Jamaican housekeeper Shanti, a delicately moving Susan Wokoma. Shanti has her own tale to tell as well and together, they edge towards a way into the future. Jude Akuwidike, Cyril Nri and Alex Lanipekun are fun as the various men but make no mistake, this is a woman’s world.

Last up is Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love, a surprisingly entertaining drama about an exiled Chinese poet Chin who runs a suicide business with his bottomless well which he charges people to throw themselves into. When the striking Hasi arrives but can’t quite take that final step, a strange connection starts to build between the pair which brought vividly to life by Barker’s inimitable style. Richard E Grant and Francesca Annis are cracking as Chin and Hasi, tracing their contrasting emotional journeys beautifully and underscored with some lovely music from Errollyn Wallen performed by Joseph Spooner. Jane Bertish’s spiky housekeeper adds a clever humourous edge and it makes for an enthralling listen.

Radio Review: Denmark Hill / Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight / The Day We Caught The Train

“I have to write an essay on Shakespeare’s view of the family, it’s a bugger”

Denmark Hill is something of a rarity, a 30 year old Alan Bennett television play that never saw the light of day and so remained unproduced until this radio version brought it back to life. A suburban riff on Hamlet which sets it in a contemporary South London, it’s more of an interesting curio than an essential addition to the Bennett canon but it still has many points of interest. A nifty turn of phrase when it comes to a joke, the often ridiculous behaviour of human beings at times of crisis, and a top-notch cast that includes Penny Downie’s Gwen, her new lover George played by Robert Glenister and her angst-ridden son Charles, the ever-lovely Samuel Barnett.

Sadly not a dramatisation of the Ocean Colour Scene song, Nick Payne’s The Day We Caught The Train is a predictably lovely piece of writing from one of our most reliable new writers. Olivia Colman’s Sally is a GP mourning the recent death of her mother, trying hard not to let being a single mother rule her life even if the fact is she hasn’t had sex for a year. We join her on a regular day full of mini-dramas which seem designed to keep her from something special, a date with Ralph Ineson’s kindly David. Naturally, it doesn’t quite go to plan but the way it unfolds into something beautifully moving is skilfully done indeed.

I was less impressed with Charlotte Bogoard Macleod’s Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight – an episodic smash through the tumultuous relationship between statistician Liam and photographer Sadie who meet-cute in a cycling accident and are drawn together despite themselves. As we fast-forward through marriage, trying for a baby and the subsequent move into surrogacy, the challenges they face are played out interestingly by Andrew Scott and Jeany Spark but never really caught me up into fully believing in their world. The play is still available to download here for you to make up your own mind.

Radio Review: Time and the Conways / Jailbird Lover / The Benefit of Time

“You don’t know what day it is today”

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to any radio drama but the prospect of an all star cast doing JB Priestley’s Time and the Conways was something I couldn’t resist and under David Hunter’s direction, it was a truly beautiful piece of work. The aching lyricism of the play and its innovative (extremely so for the time) non-linear structure have long been a favourite and so to see them get the luxury treatment here, headed up by Harriet Walter as Mrs Conway, is just fantastic.

The play looks at the fortunes of the Conway family as they celebrate the 21st birthday of one of the daughters Kay in 1919 and then flicks forward 19 years where we see straightaway what has become of them. And as their lot mirrors that of the class system in Britain, it isn’t a happy one. Walter’s brittle blitheness as she tries to ignore the financial situation is blissful, Anna Madeley and Rupert Evans are just gorgeous as Alan and Kay – the two decent ones out of the whole bunch – and Colin Guthrie’s piano adds an elegiac beauty. Sublime

Craig Hawes’ Jailbird Lover made for quite the change in pace, a ditzy comedy about Gwilym, a confirmed bachelor who lives a hermit-like existence in a Welsh village, venturing out only to the postbox to send love letters to female convicts across the globe, safe in the knowledge that their long sentences mean he’d never actually have to ever meet them. So sure enough, one turns up on his doorstep – Claire-Louise Cordwell’s Layla – and his life is turned upside down. It’s all rather charmingly done, Charles Dale is a goofy hero, and it all makes some decent entertainment.

And equally amusing was Terri-Ann Brumby’s The Benefit of Time featuring a class duo – Samantha Spiro and Adrian Scarborough – as a dowdy office worker and an unscrupulous hypnotist respectively who are taken by surprise when a session together reveals that she was Anne Boleyn in a former life. It has the potential to be daft as a brush but Brumby keeps things on an intriguing level – at first it seems obvious that he is taking her for a ride but increasingly, it feels like she who is milking the situation as her personal and professional life take an unprecedented turn for the better. In the end, well you’ll find out for yourself, but with these two having great fun with a fun script, it’s a pleasure to listen to.

Radio review: Missing in Action, Radio 4

Clare Lizzimore and Sam Troughton clearly have an affinity for working with each, having recently collaborated on Mike Bartlett’s Bull (which she directed) and the Royal Court’s Mint (which she wrote). So it seems only natural that the pair should reunite for her debut radio play Missing In Action. A busy work week means this is going up too late for you to still hear it (radio programmes remain on the iPlayer for a week) so I’ll keep it brief but sweet enough that they’ll hopefully replay it soon.
Perhaps bravely – with the war commemorations this year – but certainly wisely, Missing In Action focuses on the dark aftermath of conflict, the yawning abyss that soldiers can feel on their return from war to a world that has continued without them and to which they feel singularly ill-equipped. The play starts off with Natalie scarcely believing her eyes that the husband who had been declared missing in action in Helmand Province is shopping in a local supermarket. He doesn’t know who she is, says that he is someone else, but something is triggered and a painful process is initiated which sweeps up all around him.
It is powerfully evocative writing and delivered excellently in Jonquil Panting and Claire Grove’s well-cast production. Troughton does tortured angst so well that he is the perfect fit for Daniel (one is tempted to imagine Lizzimore may have written the role with him in mind…) but he is matched by equally intense performances from Anna Madeley as the wife who finds that he is not quite the husband she remembers and from Liz White as the other woman in his life, brittle and angry at a horrifically believable situation which shines a light on what we ask of our military service folk and asks searching questions about the support mechanism society has in place for them, and their loved ones, post-war.

Radio Review: The Boy At The Back / Chiwawa / Silk: The Clerks’ Room, Jake

“Literature doesn’t teach us anything”

Juan Mayorga’s The Boy At The Back turned out to be one of my favourite radio dramas that I’ve listened to this year so far. A canny choice for producer/director Nicolas Jackson as Mayorga is one of Spain’s most highly renowned contemporary writers (which makes me a little sad that this is the first I’ve heard of him) and this play proved to be a most effective psychological drama as a precocious pupil and deluded teacher play out a dangerously voyeuristic pas-de-deux that threatens many people around them.

By comparison, Melissa Murray’s Chiwawa might have felt a little bit tame, but its tale of a self-important author trolling around on the internet, leaving anonymous reviews slagging off his rival’s work and bigging up his own, has a deliciously biting contemporary feel. Michael Bertenshaw’s writer is lots of pompous fun but the real joy comes from Fenella Woolgar as his manipulative wife and current RSC darling Pippa Nixon as the PA she forces to shoulder the blame for the mishaps, with unpredictable consequences.

And last up is the first of three short plays that are extending the life of the recently departed Silk, looking at life in the clerks’ room through the eyes of three of the juniors who works there. This one, written by Mick Collins, focused on Jake but I wasn’t much of a fan to be honest, not helped by the strong memories of a disappointing third series and a nagging sense that there’s not really much purpose at hand here.

Radio review: Blood Wedding

“You have already thrown me away”

Ted Hughes’ reworking of Blood Wedding first aired in 2008 and won awards that year. It was re-broadcast as part of Radio 3’s season covering Lorca’s Rural Trilogy – this play, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. Productions of Lorca’s work often search for the elusive spirit of the duende, that magical ingredient that brings out the chills, and that is markedly present here due to Pauline Harris’ astute direction. 

Rather than try and create a taste of Spain, Hughes and Harris focus on the rural, evoking the timeless spirit of folkloric traditions that transcends nations. So the tale of two feuding families, locked in a death spiral of conflict even as they celebrate a marriage that should be uniting their houses, could be anywhere, not just the Almerian mountains where Lorca set it, and a multitude of British accents thus don’t sound out of place.

Hughes’ interpretation from David Johnstone’s translation is just beautiful. Pragmatic in its nature, it veers towards the densely poetic in its use of language, somehow heightening the intensity of what is already a ferocious story. Barbara Flynn burns self-righteousness as the Mother who trusts no-on e and nothing, Sarah Smart’s enigmatic Bride caught between love and duty, even the smaller contributions of Andrea Riseborough as Leonardo’s discarded wife.

The strangeness of the final act fits in perfectly here too – the last time I saw the play, in Amsterdam natch, Death and the Moon had been excised – but their haunting presence makes sense here, prefiguring the tragic end to a brilliant production. 

Radio Review: Pride and Prejudice, Radio 4

“I think the temptations will be too strong in Brighton”

Just a quickie for this 3 hour adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which was spread over 3 weeks and so proved to be quite a drawn-out experience. Charlotte Jones’ dramatisation, directed by Sally Avens, worked extremely well, thanks to a spiffingly high-quality cast. Current RSC darling Pippa Nixon ad Jamie Parker took on the leading couple, Samantha Spiro as Mrs Bennett, Toby Jones as Mr Collins, Fenella Woolgar as Miss Bingley…the list goes on. And narrated by Amanda  Root, it was practically tailor-made for me.

Which made the scheduling a tad frustrating, the week-long gaps a little too long for my apparent attention span these days whereas I would have rather binged on the whole thing in one go. But it was good. Parker taking a little getting used to as Darcy but getting there, connecting well with Nixon’s vibrant Elizabeth. Lydia Wilson making a compassionate Jane, Michelle Terry the same with Charlotte Lucas, David Troughton’s Mr Bennett resignedly pleasant against Spiro’s over-exuberant wife. A genuine pleasure.

Review: The House of Bernarda Alba (Radio 2014/ DVD 1991)

“To be born a woman is the worst punishment” 

The ominous funeral bell tolling throughout the opening of this Radio 3 version of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba is a brilliant scene setter, and a telling reminder that so much of the world of this play is actually only ever heard making it ideal for radio adaptation. Fearsome matriarch Bernarda Alba has declared eight years of mourning after the death of her second husband and orders her daughters to remain barricaded inside the family home with her. The younger women bristle at the restraint, especially as the sounds of the world beyond their gate let them know what they’re missing, and the family trait for stubbornness proves enduringly tragic. 

Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata’s translation sacrifices little of Lorca’s striking poetic imagery but impressively manages to keep a convincing colloquiality to the speech. It helps of course to have a strong cast – Siân Thomas’ Bernarda prickles with venom, Brigit Forsyth’s kindly housekeeper Poncia is achingly good and Kate Coogan and Elaine Cassidy as the oldest and youngest daughters battle excellently for the hand of a man and more importantly, for the freedom it represents. 

Conrad Nelson’s original score is beautifully atmospheric, especially in the moments when it uses the male chorus, so it seems an odd choice to intersperse more obviously “Spanish” music which shifts the mood somewhat. But there’s much to like about Pauline Harris’ production, which kicks off a set of radio productions of Lorca’s Rural Trilogy – Yerma and Blood Wedding to follow. 

And through the magic of YouTube (link here though I’m never sure how illegal these things are) I also watched a 1991 television film version, adapted by Robert David MacDonald and directed by Stuart Burge and Núria Espert. I was keen to give it a go due to an intriguing cast list (it’s always great to see actors I love at earlier points in their career) but I wasn’t prepared for how genuinely fantastic it was going to be. 

Dark, broodingly oppressive and almost suffocatingly painful, it is a masterly version of the story. Glenda Jackson is magnificent as the fearsome Bernarda, silkily lethal in her absolute control and Joan Plowright’s Poncia has just enough steel to stick up for herself where she can. But getting to see Deborah Findlay’s hauntingly beautiful Martirio (ironically meant to be the plainest) and Amanda Root’s emotionally careless Adela is just a blessing,

Their climactic moment late on is just gorgeous, all the complexity of troubled sisterhood compressed into a scene of real pain and beauty which sets up the extraordinarily bleak finale perfectly, Jackson’s steely mask slipping for just one agonising moment before the shutters go up once again and condemn her household to repeat the endless vicious circle of misery she has determined for them. Highly recommended. 

Radio Review: Jonesy / Pixie Juice / The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen

“I don’t think being gay is that bad. I’ve had three erotic dreams about The One Show’s Matt Baker and I’ve really enjoyed them.”
Tom Wells’ Jonesy is currently running as part of nabokov’s Symphony as part of the Vault Festival, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it pop up as a Radio 4 Afternoon Drama, all the more so as Wells has adapted to fit the new medium. It is clearly a work that has a special relationship with sound for the writer – on stage, it is part of a trio of plays presented as a gig, live music augmenting the dramatic experience and on radio, it becomes a foray into the world of sound effects. 
The original story follows academic and asthmatic Withernsea lad Jamie Jones as he tries to emulate the sporting underdog movies he loves so much by passing GCSE PE but it is now told by Jonesy himself from the confines of the BBC Radio Drama Sound Department where he has secured some work experience. So the storytelling becomes a little meta with its references but also surreally enhanced by the breadth of effects at his fingertips, some of them not entirely appropriate for the task in hand but all of them used most wittily. 

And the adaptation here works extremely well – the construct of the music gig in Symphony, though effective, is quite constrictive and so it is nice to see the play breathe more naturally here, not least through the extended running time. Matthew Tennyson captures the emotional awkwardness of the protagonist beautifully, so too the tenderness of his flowering confidence and he is ably supported by a strong supporting cast. The only tiny cavil comes with wanting Wells to expand his dramatic repertoire now – surely there’s only so many alumni of Withernsea Library he can work with.
Ed Harris’ Pixie Juice on the other hand is something just a bit crazy, almost bafflingly surreal in a way which has worked on the stage in plays of his that I have seen, but didn’t translate quite so effectively for me on radio. Indira Varma’s Anya is forced to take over her father’s (Peter Polycarpou) tattoo parlour when his eyesight starts to fail and finds her difficulties eased by the presence of a pixie or seven who offer a solution to her problems. But fairytale endings are the stuff of storybooks, or so she believes, and things take unexpected turn after unexpected turn in an interesting if not quite compelling way.

And last up, The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford and adapted by Eileen Horne and Andrew Davies was a well constructed little thing, playing in the 15 minute drama slot. Ashford’s original novel plays with the few facts known about Austen’s death at the age of 41 and posits a world full of secrets and lies in which someone might actually have had it in for her. The use of Anne Sharp, former governess and friend, as a narrator (Ruth Gemmell) who tells of her investigations and also of her friendship with Jane (Elaine Cassidy) is clever and the way the mysterious plot unfolds is well worth the time. 

Radio Review: Just Dance / Sargasso

”They called a horse after a dancer?”

Just a quickie for these two Afternoon Dramas as it has turned into one of those weeks… I tweeted about Just Dance as its main star – John Heffernan – has quite the following amongst my followers and beyond and the prospect of hearing his voice when his next stage appearance is as yet unconfirmed was not one to pass up lightly. In Frances Byrnes’ Just Dance, he played Luke, the best dancer of his generation but one now crippled with doubt, psychologically unable to dance. Through a chance meeting with Afro-Caribbean Guy, he explores the driving forces behind both his talent and his torment, his luxuriously deep tones bringing the perfect amount of dancer’s elegance to the part.

Simon Bovey’s Sargasso is a much more earthy affair, set in the elver season on the Severn, where hundreds descend trying to catch the eels and sell them on at huge profit. Newcomer Kevin reckons he can get away with poaching without a license, and he’s not the only one, but when his father-in-law is the one who patrols the waters, it makes for a difficult and dangerous time. Robert Lonsdale as the younger man and Ian Gelder as the elder made it an enjoyable listen, though it never quite managed the level of gripping tension it could have done with.