Long before Chigwell was cemented in popular culture as the 1980s home of those disappointed wives, the Birds of a Feather, Dickens set much of Barnaby Rudge there, as the 1780s home of an eclectic cast – including one with even more reason to despair of her erstwhile husband.
The novel, with its backdrop of the Gordon Riots – violent protests in London against legislation to reduce discrimination against Catholics – wasn’t well-received on publication in 1841 and has been adapted only twice, as a silent film in 1915 and a BBC TV series in 1960.
A new BBC Radio 4 serialisation, directed by Jeremy Mortimer and dramatised by Mike Walker, takes a robust and entertaining approach to the novel. One of the big successes of this adaptation is the convincing authorial voice of Dickens, played with soft-voiced earnestness by Iain Glen, debating the morality of mob action.
In this smartly paced production, we are transported from the furore of London to maypole dancing in Chigwell, from fractious father-son relationships to the murkiness of highway attacks and visits to Mary Rudge by her sinister, ‘disappeared’ husband.
This subtle, shifting palette is anchored to the unrest in London through two characters set against each other: the Catholic Geoffrey Haredale (David Cann) and the arrogant MP John Chester (John Mackay, with an astonishing, supercilious drawl).
In an excellent piece of casting, the eponymous character, too often seen as the ‘local idiot’, is played affectingly but unsentimentally by Daniel Laurie, an actor with Down’s syndrome. The boy’s talkative pet raven is performed by Joanna Horton, who also plays Miggs, the downtrodden domestic in the Varden household, who laces her deliveries with a lingering irony whenever faced with young Dolly.
In a gloriously comic scene, their deliberation over stain removal is punctuated with the drooling thoughts of would-be swain Simon Tappertit (Bryan Dick), who would like to apply a “stiff-bristled scrubbing brush to peachy Miss Dolly”.
Barnaby Rudge may be considered rescued from neglect.
Returning to the season Original British Dramatists, Radio 4’s premieres of works by writers new to radio, a recurring theme was that of the romantic and life crises of twentysomethings. Jessica Brown’s Lost or Stolen is wittily original – a young woman (Annabel Scholey) steals the mobile phone of a man (Tom Bennett) she has just met and uses it against him to invidious effect.
What might have been a trashy romcom is a sensitive, funny and edgy investigation of the facade this pair presents to the world – and the reality within.
When I Lived in Peru by Andrew Viner is another inventive spin on romcom, with Martin (played by Neil Pearson-soundalike Stephen Wight) using his redundancy money secretly to fly to Tanzania, Monday to Friday, to clock up travel tales to rival those of his girlfriend.
In From A to Z, meanwhile, writer Rose Heiney sets her young couple (Alex Carter and Catrin Stewart) an alphabetical dating challenge. Shot through with comic one-liners, this would have benefited from some tightening up.
Art, Artefacts and Angels by Phil Marley bravely tackles issues of funding and provenance of exhibits in museums, but the comedy is impaired when hijacked by stereotypical, dodgy Russians.
Set in a convent, Rachel Connor’s The Cloistered Soul pairs a sense of silence and retreat with the mystery of several lost souls, without straying into hackneyed territory.
When the Night Has No Right to Be King is a dark, visceral but poetic account of grief by author and actor John Lynch, who stars alongside Steven Mackintosh, in a play with many mythological references.
Barnaby Rudge R4, Sunday, May 25
Lost or Stolen R4, Thursday, May 22
When I Lived in Peru R4, Friday, May 16
From A to Z R4, Friday, May 23
Art, Artefacts and Angels R4, Thursday, May 15
The Cloistered Soul R4, Monday, May 19
When the Night Has No Right to Be King R4, Wednesday, May 14