Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Review: Forty-Three Fifty-Nine Assassins by John Dryden and Mike Walker

Wondering where all the high-concept flicks have gone? Frustrated that no one takes any risks with storytelling any more? Hankering for a rich, realistic story world that completely immerses you? You need to listen to Forty-Three Fifty-Nine Assassins.

At the time of posting, the play is available for another 6 days on the BBC iPlayer. Then it'll doubtless disappear for many, many years - until the industry wakes up, rewrites its contracts, and starts to exploit the incredible wealth of archived radio drama.

Where to start? Well, 4359A isn't content with having one potentially great story to tell - there's an abundance. We meet Henry, a hit man born into a firm of "family butchers" stretching back three or four generations, visiting a seaside town on a job. Henry is with his daughter Cath, but their strange dialogue tells us there's something very wrong here - something weirder than the very idea of a family company of killers. Father and daughter seem to be telling each other stuff they already know, with Cath in particular hitting a number of symbolic statements right on the nose. When Henry meets his vic, Bryant, Cath becomes mysteriously silent - and we start to realise that all is not well in Henry's head.

Here the story gives birth to another two potential stories, like a Russian doll unpacking. Bryant is a fallen City financier, living in luxury but also hounded by the media. There's potential here to run with the theme of the credit crunch, bankers' bonuses and so on, but this idea isn't allowed to take over the main plot line. At the same time, with Henry pretending to be a surveyor from the housing department investigating a planning application, everything goes a little "Grand Designs" for a few minutes.

And then the most surprising thing happens - well, it's surprising for the Afternoon Play slot. It goes on for about a minute, it's very messy, and it's not sex.

Now Bryant's daughter Angela turns up, and Henry reinvents himself as a policeman. Cath has meanwhile briefly reappeared, advising and helping Henry with the clean-up. Angela manages to escape and there's a final chase - in the sea. Henry, the poorer swimmer, is defeated. Or is he?

Let's enumerate the risks that the makers of this fine play have taken. They've got characters who may or not be real. Characters don't stay throughout the piece, and the character who faces the major challenge, Angela, doesn't appear until the last act. Several potential stories are referenced, but no single theme is insisted on. And, to add a technical risk, the play is recorded on location.

The makers pull off all of these challenges. The play is impossible to second-guess, and hard to categorise, as a result. It's fresh but taps into several established genres - primarily filmic ones. There's a connection with Brighton Rock, and not just because it's set in an English seaside town: sin, redemption and a certain Greenelandic thriller tone infuse the play. There's also a flavour of the noirish, B-movie sensibilities of James M Cain here, and, when Henry and Cath talk about ice creams, a hint of that habit Tarantino swiped from Elmore Leonard where the bad guys obsess about trivia.

There's one more risk the makers take. Angela has locked herself in a bedroom, but is working her way out before she drops thirty feet to the beach and makes for the sea. The play's point of view, which has been solely Henry's up until now, switches to Angela. This is partly so we can hear Angela escaping - which is done entirely with sound, rather than expository dialogue. But as we hear Henry pounding on the door, spinning more lies, we suddenly see him for what he is: a relentless and amoral killer. We'd been tricked into thinking of him as a devoted father, and been impressed at his improvisation skills, but now we see him through the victim's eyes.

4359A is proof that you can do weird, bloody and topical on radio in the afternoon. It's proof that you can make a radio play with the impact of a movie. It's an indie film for your ears, made by an indie company, commissioned by the BBC. Listen to it if you can.

Henry ...... Rob Jarvis
Bryant ...... Nicholas Farrell
Angela ...... Emily Beecham
Cathy ...... Meghan Haggerty

A Goldhawk Essential production broadcast on Monday 3 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4.

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