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Radio review - drama

Published Friday 25 February 2011 at 11:37 by R4, Saturday, February 26

Show Boat

R4, Sunday, February 20

The Wire: Etian

R3, Saturday, February 19

Brian Gulliver’s Travels

R4, Monday, February 21

Classic Chandler - Farewell My Lovely

R4, Saturday, February 19

Classic Chandler - Playback

Production information

You know there's something wrong when you come away from the radio dramatisation of a book, whistling the songs of the hit musical it inspired. If Radio 4's Classic Serial has been true to the 1926 novel, Show Boat, its author Edna Ferber was no James Thurber. Heavy enough on hackneyed sentiment and trite dialogue to have sunk the whole enterprise (if only), it was woefully low on wit., Here is an example of its down-home repartee. Mama, the disapproving matriarch of the floating theatre, complains about how its star, Julie, "looks out of those black eyes". Another character cries: "What do you want her to look out of? Her ears?" That's worse than: "Mississippi. Spell it."

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein won Ferber's support for their musical adaption by promising to incorporate her theme of racism and the unlawful interracial marriage of Julie and Steve. Here, the miscegenation story was bolted on to a portrayal of theatrical life which was all veneer. The more they went on about the glitter of the lights and the greasepaint, the more paper-thin the characters became.
Ferber, an assiduous researcher who specialised in romantic novels with a serious underbelly, spent a summer on a showboat but any sense of authenticity has been lost in Moya O'Shea's leaden adaptation for Radio 4.
Lysette Anthony played Kim, a showgirl who emitted a past- her-peak weariness, ploddingly telling the story of her infamous mother, Magnolia (Samantha Spiro), to a ridiculously inept interviewer. The New Yorker magazine, which apparently sent him, may wish to complain.
Let down by the script, the cast overcompensated with enthusiasm, lending a tiresome shrillness to proceedings and a self-consciousness to the southern accents especially when they were shouting. Playing the young Magnolia, Shahrazad Matthews showed great restraint when required to bleat "Yes, Mama" for the umpteenth time when she might have felt like inserting a 21st century scream of:
"Bare emosh."
I would rather have heard a play about Ferber, who was thought by Dorothy Parker to be long-winded but who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel So Big - first filmed with Barbara Stanwyck and then Jane Wyman. Despite creating roles for these celluloid man-eaters, she was reputed never to have had sex and once had a character say that being an old maid was like death by drowning, "delightful when you stop struggling".
Chastity was the sequel to rape in Malcom McKay's powerful account of how spirituality replaced cognitive therapy for one victim in The Wire:
Etian. Elaine Cassidy was remarkable in the lead role, moving from feisty to a tiny, troubled presence mired in shame and wanting to punish herself. Her character was from an Irish immigrant family in London, and there was a hint of something unsavoury emanating from her father (Lorcan Cranitch) and something dubiously atavistic as she moved to Ireland to become a nun.
Visions were interpreted as mental illness in Brian Gulliver's Travels but the point of Bill Dare's highly original format was to both satirise and issue a warning about the nanny state.
Gulliver, played with his customary playfulness by Neil Pearson, insisted he had visited a country called Gelbetia. The country was run by doctors, lifestyle was no longer a choice but a matter of law, and every character flaw was part of a condition. So laziness was excused as "effort deficit syndrome", and impatience became "queue frustration disorder". The series began on an amusing and thought-provoking note.
The Classic Chandler series has finished for now, with Farewell My Lovely in a surprisingly stodgy dramatisation by Robin Brooks, while Playback, adapted by Stephen Wyatt, had a lighter touch and featured Sarah Goldberg as Betty Mayfield, a blonde who wasn't entirely dumb.

Production information displayed was believed correct at time of review. Information may change over the run of the show.

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Run sheet

King's Head, Islington London
January 24-February 15 2014