Radio review: A Larkin Double – Jill; Lost in Mexico; Hombre; The Water Babies – A Modern Fairy Tale

It’s ironic that Philip Larkin’s first novel, Jill, written at 21, features a bumbling young protagonist in a series of  embarrassments, when he later declared the work itself a juvenile ‘indiscretion’. Actually, it is much more than a literary curiosity, as revealed in an engaging adaptation by Robin Brooks.

A Larkin Double: Jill brings the novel to radio for the first time with his only other offering, A Girl In Winter, to follow a week later. If Jill bears out the adage that a first novel is usually  autobiographical, then the poet who later wrote that “sexual intercourse began in nineteen-sixty-three (which was rather late for me)” may have spent  his early days as an Oxford undergraduate in a lather of  ill-judged encounters.

It is 1940 and John Kemp,  a gauche, northern boy, played self-effacingly by Samuel Barnett, is pitted against Warner, portrayed as brutishly indifferent  to others by Richard Goulding.

The grating interplay of  different sensitivities and classes – including the brittle sophistication of Jessica Raine’s Elizabeth – is wonderfully observed. Discovering he can unnerve Warner with tales of family life, Kemp writes letters from an invented sister, Jill, at an Angela Brazil-like boarding school. In a delicious bit of plotting, he is then confronted by a girl called Gillian, an identikit  of his imaginary sibling.

The subtle shift in the balance of power between Kemp and Warner is temporary but the power of the imagination has been unleashed. As much as this is a coming-of-age piece, it is also an enquiry into what makes a writer, without the indulgence that might indicate.

The penalty for youthful indiscretions in a shrinking world can be harsh, as Ingeborg Topsoe’s two-parter, Lost in Mexico, explores. After backpacking through Latin America, Rachel (Olivia Darnley) and Sally (Lucy May Barker) give in to the impulse to invent a theft and claim on the insurance. Their ruse is swiftly uncovered and they are given an abrasive taste of the Mexican justice system, prison life and the ‘soft option’ of working with children sleeping on streets run by strutting gangs.

The drama earns its two  slots by exploring the naivety, insularity and casual racism the girls bring with them and how  at the first sign of stress their unequal friendship begins to fall disastrously apart.

Prejudices are at simmering level in late-19th-century Arizona at the opening of Elmore Leonard’s western drama,  Hombre. The tension soon boils over when a blue-eyed ‘Apache’, John Russell, shares a stagecoach with white folk who rely  on him to lead them out of the desert after they are held up.

I haven’t seen the 1967 film with Clint Eastwood, but this radio adaptation by Robert Ferguson is likely to convert me to the genre. The atmosphere in John Dryden’s production is extraordinary,  the suspense chilling, the sun blistering, dialogue as prickly as a cactus. Elliott Cowan is proudly defiant as Russell, Trevor White charismatic as the narrator figure and Steve Hartley gravelly as outlaw Braden.

The green and gold of a briny underworld is vividly realised in Emma Harding’s production of The Water Babies: A Modern Fairy Tale. The Rev Charles Kingsley’s production has been transposed by Paul Farley to 2013 and Tom is a Nigerian child slave (a delightful performance by Damson Idris).

Assorted river and sea dwellers – such as Ben Crowe’s Crayfish, an American toughie who invokes Dawkins and Hawkins with the message that there ain’t no big crayfish in the sky – are saved from Disneyfication by speeches that take in agnosticism, evolution and the fashion victim status of caddis flies.

A Larkin Double: Jill R4, Sunday, March 31
Lost in Mexico R4, Monday, March 25; Tuesday, March 26
Hombre R4, Saturday, March 23
The Water Babies: A Modern Fairy Tale R4, Sunday, March 24