Today we’re as likely to see pornographic undercurrents in Peppa the Pig as take offence at the upper class drag ball, the flamboyant epicentre of John Osborne’s rage at society’s cant. Although set among Austria’s late 19th century elite, the play neatly skewered mid-20th century hypocrisy when the Lord Chamberlain refused to licence it in 1965, primarily due to the cross-dressing event. London’s Royal Court became a private members’ club for the duration of the run, helping to end official censorship of the theatre in 1968.
Despite being a cause celebre, the play about the rise and fall of low-born army intelligence officer Alfred Redl, who discovers his homosexuality and is blackmailed into treason, is rarely performed. Luckily, the need for diverse locations, a large cast and opulent set and costume is more easily handled by radio.
Alan Bates’ lead performance at Chichester in 1983 is held to be the definitive account of Redl, played here by Richard Goulding. As the vain young man, he hints at early struggles. Later, he storms to an eloquent vindication of his sexuality, followed by seething fury at his fate, helping to allay Osborne’s patchy depiction of character.
Philip Franks’ intelligent radio production uses a narrator to locate and paint the scenes, most successfully when the powdered, preening drag queens are conjured vividly en masse, led by Bette Bourne’s suspender-clad Baron. Peter Egan’s emollient defender of Redl and Michael Pennington’s vituperative Russian colonel also stand out. The women are mostly whores, though, and there is a multi-focal sprawl to the play that is never quite conquered.