Radio Drama Reviews

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Review: The Loop by Nick Perry

Nick Perry's new play The Loop is a charming sci fi piece that sneaks some surprisingly emotional lumps of hard matter into what seems a whimsical tale.

"Nick Perry" is a writer trying to write a radio play - but don't let that put you off. Nick is the first person to moan about how middle-aged writers start writing about writing. (He also says, "I can't get into science fiction... It's all a load of crap, really".) When his four year old son plays with Nick's mobile phone, Nick finds himself speaking to one Jim Giller - a writer on The Twilight Zone. In 1959.

This mashup between the Afternoon Play and the (original) Twilight Zone is an affectionate tribute to both institutions, but it's also a respectable drama with some neat jokes. Perry (the Perry behind "Nick Perry", as it were) lulls us into a comfortable sense that we're just cosily exploring that good old conundrum of science fiction, the loopy nature of interfered-with time. However, I did get seduced enough to go and look "Jim Giller" up on Wikipedia at the same time as Nick did. (Well, I think it was the same time.)

We know there's going to be a twist in the story because we're told it has to have one, but it still comes as a satisfying surprise. The final tying off of the loop is also very tidily done. Is the story real, or not? Well, that's what happens on The Twilight Zone and, this time, on the Afternoon Play.

In passing, it's worth mentioning that this is one of the few radio plays I've heard with a convincing small child in it. And was that a bit of Calexico on the playout music?

Finally, anyone who's found their own temporal trajectory coinciding with that of the BBC Radio Drama commissioning cycle will appreciate Nick's cry of "who knows how their minds work?" But I'm sure that anyone who's got through to the other side will also agree with Nick that radio is... "the theatre of being paid bugger-all". (Just kidding.) (A bit.)

Nick Perry ...... Ivan Kaye
Jim Giller ...... Edward Hogg
Old Man ...... Peter Marinker
Policeman ...... Rhys Jennings
Dolores ...... Emerald O'Hanrahan
Woman ...... Melissa Advani

Directed by Toby Swift and broadcast on Wednesday 18 November 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4. Available on BBC iPlayer until 25 November 2009.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Review: 28 by Dawn King

Dawn King's first play for the Afternoon Play slot is an intense, convincing and provocative exploration of collateral damage. Nathan, a happy and balanced teacher, is hauled from his flat by the police because he gave an old friend a bed for the night. They take his fingerprints and his clothes, and they bang him up for the statutory 28 days of fizzing electric lights and suicide watch. And it's all because the man Nathan let stay in his place turned out to be a terrorist.

The play follows the 28 days following Nathan's release - his attempts to pick up the threads of his life, and the (mostly) well-meaning actions of his friends and family. Nathan tries to return to his job, but when he loses control of a class of taunting kids, the head teacher suggests he take unpaid leave for the rest of the term. Nathan chooses to quit instead, despite loving his job.

His depressed girlfriend Juliet tries to make Nathan see that he too has slid into depression: he stays at home with the curtains closed, ignoring the messages on his answer machine. Nathan's early comment, made at the release party his family throws for him, that his "life has been on hold" gathers significance as we slowly realise that Nathan is frozen by the trauma he's suffered.

More or less rational thoughts about whether he should have been suspicious of his guest shade into more paranoid thoughts about what other people are saying about him, and about his phone being tapped. After imagining that he's going to be attacked in a pub, Nathan has a full-blown panic attack and, soon after, Juliet decides to move out for a while. At the end of the month of freedom, Nathan runs a bath... And I guarantee that you will not hear a scarier dripping tap in a lifetime of Afternoon Plays.

The unsympathetic, no-nonsense David is the dissenting voice in the play, telling Nathan that he's focusing on the past when he should be moving on. He says what most of us, to our own shame, would probably think: that Nathan only has himself to blame... After all, how could you extend a helping hand to "someone like that"? The self-protective and self-deluding notion that we'd all be wise enough to avoid trouble is widespread, and surely a reason why the effects of trauma are so badly understood in the wider community. I can imagine David laughing righteously in the saloon bar about soldiers suffering from battlefield trauma. Nasty though it is, David's viewpoint needs to be articulated - because it's commonly held.

And Nathan suffers from the same warped thinking himself. In the pub, he's suspicious of a man who hasn't touched his pint since he came in. Nathan's friend Tom says, "that's not a crime..." Nathan is over-compensating for his imagined failure to detect a terrorist in his midst, and unwittingly attempting to live by the false wisdom David represents.

"How can I put it behind me when it's still happening?" asks Nathan. What's happened to him hasn't just changed him - it's destroyed him. This play expresses beautifully the terrible waste that can be triggered by heavy-handed security regimes and lack of support for victims of crime - and Nathan is as much a victim as anyone caught up in a terrorist outrage. I don't know if someone in Nathan's position would be offered counselling, or compensation. I imagine, however. that the opportunity to do your bit for the furtherance of justice is meant to be reward enough.

Dawn King has written a powerful play that raises important issues of public policy around the justice system while creating believable characters who struggle with the challenge of mending a disrupted life. All the performances are outstanding, especially Joseph Cohen-Cole as Nathan, Emerald O'Hanrahan as Juliet, Rhys Jennings as Tom and Kate Layden as Libby. Jessica Dromgoole's unfussy production makes impressive use of montage and subtly suggests Nathan's increasingly slippery hold on reality without overwhelming us with pathos (or too much recourse to The Smiths, bless them).

Nathan ...... Joseph Cohen-Cole
Juliet ...... Emerald O'Hanrahan
Maggie ...... Gillian Wright
Tom ...... Rhys Jennings
Miss Warren ...... Tessa Nicholson
David ...... Philip Fox
Libby ...... Kate Layden
Police Officers ...... Piers Wehner and David Hargreaves
Lucie ...... Jade Beaty
Tiru ...... Matthew Hall
Brona ...... Stefanie Walker

Directed by Jessica Dromgoole and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2:15pm on Wednesday 11th November 2009

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Review: Dear Writer by Jane Rogers

Ten year old Polly and a 79 year old author write to each other, with the girl demanding a new book in the writer's fantasy series. But the writer, taking care of the farm house left to her by her recently deceased brother, is suffering from writer's block.

Things aren't quite what they seem: Polly's antique advice to "make up the fire" and "switch on the wireless" sits awkwardly with her more modern language, and it's soon clear that Polly is "Paula"'s younger self.

Through a series of remembered incidents, the writer pulls us deeper into her early family life, and begins to peel away the layers of defence that she's developed since running away from home so long ago. Although we only ever hear two voices, Anna Massey and Leah Verity White bring these episodes vividly to life, with each one reaching closer and closer to the painful truth about Polly/Paula's mother.

The story of the melting doll, hurled into the fire by Polly in anger and confusion at her mother's hysteria, is unsettling and ignites our need to understand the strange dynamics of this big, stressed family.

The past can't be changed, but we can alter the way it affects us in the present. The writer finds a way through the block by imagining the story she can never know: the reason behind her mother's depression. Paradoxically, the breakthrough comes through telling a story that doesn't centre on "you" - that is, herself. It's as if the writer has to get out of her own light in order to see something new. And that something isn't a new story, but a new side to an old story.

I thought I might lose it when both characters (or both aspects of the character) begin to weep at the culmination of the tragic story the writer has created. But the play doesn't leave us at this low, albeit cathartic, moment. In the final part we meet Polly and her siblings in the winter, tracking a snow leopard in the snow, and finding their own footprints magically turned into those of giants.

It's difficult to present an entire world, and people it with real characters, with just two voices and minimal sound effects. But this sparse production is absolutely engaging. We feel as if we have lived through the writer's years of self-blame and self-denial, and the relationship between the young and old Polly never feels artificial or forced. Stirring, satisfying and even suspenseful, this is an excellent example of the intimate, emotional drama that radio can do so well.

Writer ...... Anna Massey
Polly ...... Leah Verity White

Produced by Clive Brill at Pacificus and broadcast on Thursday 13 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Review: The Summer Walking by Iain Finlay MacLeod

Pregnant traveller Catriona takes salmon and pearls from a wild river in Scotland, just as her grandmother Jess did. Times have changed for the "tinks" and the land they travel, but Catriona's connection with nature is strong and instinctive.

She bribes Hassan, an Iranian gamekeeper, for access to the estate where the river runs, causing gaffer Eddie to sack him. Hassan is rescued by grandma Jess, and even learns some traveller skills. Catriona's feckless husband Alec also finds some respect for Hassan.

Both Catriona and Hassan are exiles: Hassan has fled political persecution, and sends money back to his wife and child, while Catriona belongs to a past where the land provided, and independence of spirit was the birthright of all.

The BBc's introduction to the play says that it's "set in the far north of Scotland", but the river in question is the Spey, so we're in the north east. It's good to hear a little of the Doric, which rarely makes it to the airwaves, but dinna fash yersel, there's nae much o it.

I was left confused about where Hassan was heading next. At first, I thought he was going back to Iran, but perhaps he means that he'll stay in Scotland, but suppress his Iranian identity:

Catriona: Where will you go, Hassan?
Hassan: I'll find a quiet place to work, [?] up the coast or the big city south, and maybe hide my other self in case war comes.

This is the only thing I'm needin' clarification on, ken.

Catriona ...... Amy Manson
Jess ...... Ann Louise Ross
Hassan ...... Khalid Laith
Alec ...... Finn Den Hertog
Eddie ...... Jimmy Chisholm
Joan ...... Wendy Seager

Adapted by the author from his stage play The Pearl Fisher (Edinburgh, 2007).

Directed in Glasgow by Kirstine Cameron and broadcast on 12 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Review: The Mouse House by Adrian Penketh

The Mouse House is one of those plays that you immediately want to listen again. It's packed full of ideas and hooks into topical concerns. I wanted to keep stopping the action, and debate with the characters. And that's got to be a good thing, right?

Mike, a bored IT geek on the wrong side of 40 who recites TS Eliot's "Hollow Men" to himself in the lav before heading into yet another PowerPointless meeting, is inspired by a Parisian stunt. In admiration of the group that secretly repaired the clock of the Pantheon in the French capital, Mike plots to mount a fireworks display from the chimneys of Battersea Power Station.

This Banksyan, plinthesque project is progressed at a series of meetings in All Bar One at Leicester Square. We're not told how Mike recruits his expert helpers - a pyrotechnics guru, and a construction guy who can get them into the site - but I'm guessing social media plays a part.

Mike's wife Kate, the incomparable Raquel Cassidy, is as bored and detached as him. They have no kids; they discuss a friend's bulimic daughter; they wonder about getting another dog... And they gently argue about whether they've just eaten fusilli or penne. The dialogue is impressively 2009, right down to one of the gang's pronouncements that "we've reached that point".

But why is Mike doing what he's doing? Mike himself is unsure. He wants to make an anonymous gesture, but then he decides that he should contact the media. Meanwhile, he's recording a long message into a Dictaphone, tracking the progress of the project and his interpretation of its meaning.

Given the (brief) mention of 9/11, and the confessional nature of Mike's audio recording, I couldn't help thinking of the London bombings of 2005. The play doesn't talk directly about physical terrorism, but perhaps the thought processes behind cultural terrorism are not so very different.

The play mentions actual dates: the fireworks are planned for the day I'm writing this review. Coincidentally, I rode on the train past Battersea Power Station yesterday and the area between the building and the river is covered with seats. (There's going to be a display of motorcyle stunts there. ) But somehow I believed the scene where Mike's team make a recce under cover of darkness (encountering no seats) more than the evidence of my own eyes.

This is a challenging play that dares to revisit Eliot's unreal city, and to ask how much progress we've made in bolstering the authenticity of our lives.

Mike ...... Adam Kotz
Kate ...... Raquel Cassidy
Steve ...... Nicholas Gleaves
Will ...... Giles Fagan
Mike's Colleague ...... Stephen Hogan.

Directed by Toby Swift and broadcast on Tuesday 11 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Review: Bearing the Cross by Ken Blakeson

Three soldiers awarded Victoria Crosses for their bravery at the Battle of Rorke's Drift meet up at a ceremony twenty years later. The action at Rorke's Drift is sketched in via its dramatic recreation in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which is wowing late nineteenth century audiences at Earls Court in London.

However, most of the play is given up to discussions between the veterans and the landlord and barmaid of the pub in which they meet. The landlord is hostile towards the former redcoats, articulating the idea that soldiers are simply pawns in the capitalistic or imperialist plot - but his real animus is quickly revealed to be his own loss of a brother at an earlier, and perhaps more significant, engagement with the Zulu forces.

Soldier William Jones then becomes the mouthpiece for a series of revisionist attitudes to the war, including a respectful reappraisal of the Zulu enemy's motivations and cultural practices. All three veterans are suffering from what today we'd call post traumatic stress disorder. There are a couple of overt references to the most famous British military cock-up of the century, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the characters also speculate that Rorke's Drift was spun as a victory to divert attention from the generally poor conduct of the war.

The ordinary soldier's view of this campaign may well have aligned with the story told here, and the characters in the play are indeed based on real people. But the language they use to describe their attitudes feels much too like the language of the twenty-first century, rather than the nineteenth. It's not the vocabulary so much as the construction of their discourse: no one says he's got "issues", for example, but the rhythm of the conversation, and the characters' lack of circumspection, seem utterly wrong for the period. They seem to be informed by a kind of casual acquaintance with psychology, mass media and human rights theory that they couldn't possibly have had.

Every generation uses history to comment on its own period: indeed, history is a form of storytelling, and it therefore tells us as much (and often more) about its authors as its protagonists. We're doubtless meant to find parallels with the conflicts of our own times. But patterns of battle experience repeat up and down the historical timeline: Rorke's Drift may resonate with the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, and with the current British experience in Afghanistan - but it also echoes every confused or compromised engagement that's ever occured. The ordinary soldier has always been expendable. That's why the main cannon fodder were called the "infantry" - they were the infants.

Perhaps it's interesting that Victorian soldiers could identify what we might think of as modern (or even postmodern) injustices and untruths in a premodern age. If so, there has to be a better way of bringing these points to life than by having a handful of characters telling each other things in a pub. The respect we owe to the real-life models for these characters inhibits their full dramatic realisation in this play.

And while it's unfair to compare a radio drama with a Hollywood movie, it's hard not to compare and contrast this play's use of the Buffalo Bill show with similar scenes in The Assassination of the Outlaw Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In that film, the nightly recreation of Jesse James's death on stage directly engages the theatre audience, who are implictly part of the outlaw's legend. Jesse James is already a celebrity when the movie starts - a man whose dime book adventures are more real than his actual exploits in the shrinking wild west.

But in Bearing the Cross, Buffalo Bill's show is only used to provide a platform for exposition of the battle. We're given just one character - Martha, the barmaid - who unequivocally approves of the soldiers' VCs and sees the medals as tokens of the community's regard for its heroes. A Kipling poem is used throughout the play to point up the ironies around society's use and abuse of its armed forces. And the only one of the soldiers who seems completely sure of the rightness of his and his comrades' actions will go on, we learn at the end, to commit suicide. The case for the establishment isn't put with much vigour, so the play ends up sounding like a long argument with an absent antagonist.

William Jones VC ...... Nigel Anthony
Robert Jones VC ...... Sebastian Harcombe
Henry Hook VC ...... Jon Strickland
Landlord/Buffalo Bill ...... Robert Blythe
Barmaid ...... Bethan Walker

Original music by David Chilton

Directed by Gordon House at Goldhawk Essential and broadcast on Friday 7 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Review: Three in a Bed by Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek

Raunchy! Turning-22 Gemma, an editorial dogsbody, inserts herself into the lives of literary liggers Sarah and Tom. Is she the daughter they couldn't have, or the new lover they need to reboot their relationship?

Warped, touching and realistically unresolved, Three in a Bed is a mature and sophisticated piece that tackles some of those "...ever after" issues that most stories steer clear of. For Sarah, there's the challenge of living every day in the light of her childlessness, while Gemma has been rejected by her own mother with casual but sustained cruelty. Life, as we know, goes on, even after the worst personal tragedies - and this, the writers suggest, is how it goes on: messily.

The neediness of Gemma, Sarah and Tom is overt, while their secrets need extraction. This is true to life, in that people's more extreme behaviour often seems to be desperately signalling some kind of pain that those around them can't intuit. Despair and addiction (if only to some form of distraction) are never very far away from these characters who have lost their anchors, and their maps.

This play asks if we can substitute for the broken relationships we can't mend. The writers have no neat answer to this question: the message is that our search for completion will dictate our actions, and that understanding the forces that drive us towards each other may help us heal, if only a little, and a little at a time.

Bold, contemporary writing, together with a great cast propelled by Annabelle Dowler's Gemma, and careful sound design, combine to create a very real world where tragedies must be borne despite the brittle, trivial style of our everyday interactions.

Sarah ...... Anastasia Hille
Tom ...... Matthew Marsh
Gemma ...... Annabelle Dowler
Kira/Tasha ...... Lizzy Watts
Sebastian Murray ...... Philip Fox
Caterer ...... Benjamin Askew

Directed by Sally Avens and broadcast on Monday 10 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4.