Radio review: Present Laughter; The Flea; A Girl in Winter

If Noel Coward’s Present Laughter is, as generally agreed, drawn from his own life, he goes beyond self-portrait and self-caricature into unflinching self-laceration.

Pier Productions’ new radio version, directed by Celia de Wolff, is a smart romp through the farcical life of preening matinee idol Garry Essendine as those who wish to seduce, serve, berate or befriend him whirl in and out of his flat or hide in adjoining rooms.

Garry is both compliant in and despairing of the louche behaviour and professional neediness he inspires, and Samuel West bridges this schizoid gap with a muscular performance in the role.

It seems that Garry has to be impressed and depressed by successive visitors before he can relinquish his camp, actorly demeanour. It is all very funny, especially when he is paired with his long-time secretary Monica, played with wonderful acidity by Frances Barber.

Preparing for a tour of Africa, Garry swoons at imagined ailments. “I can see myself under a mosquito net fighting for breath,” he moans.

“Who with?” retorts Monica, with cut-throat timing.

As Garry’s estranged wife Liz, Janie Dee exercises steely control with a hint of motherliness, which is no doubt why he dumps the wannabes and creeps off with her. Despite the posturing and the silk robes, Garry has his own uncertainties, brought on by the horror of his 40th birthday, which West evokes with subtle vocal undertones.

[pullquote]Garry is both compliant in and despairing of the louche behaviour he inspires, and Samuel West bridges this schizoid gap with a muscular performance[/pullquote]

Garry is savage, however, when eviscerating the work of a young playwright (Freddie Fox) and the odd recital style of would-be actress Daphne (Lily James), who pronounces ‘singled’ as ‘sing-led’ to his amusement, following that up with ‘ming-led’ to more mocking.

An appropriate text for Daphne would have been John Donne’s The Flea, as she could have delivered the line, “And in this flea our two bloods ming-led be” in her own inimitable manner. The lovely conceit of Michael Symmons Roberts’ play, taking its title from Donne’s love poem, is to look at the early life of the metaphysical poet from the point of view of the eponymous bloodsucker, played by Toby Jones with gleeful precocity.

Donne (Conrad Nelson) leads a promiscuous private life until he falls in love with Ann More, niece of his employer Sir Thomas Egerton (Malcolm Raeburn), the lord keeper of the great seal, leading The Flea to bemoan the vanishing of “a tasty spread of ladies”.

A light touch with the history and a bold hand with dialogue mark this play, which shows Donne, a Catholic who marries Ann without permission, losing both his job and position in society.

A Girl in Winter, the second of Philip Larkin’s two novels dramatised by BBC Radio 4, this one by Richard Stevens, vibrates with the loneliness of the outsider. Young German exile Katherine – played with delicacy by German star Carolyn Genzkow, new to British radio – is working as a provincial librarian, as did Larkin in his early 20s.

She is brave and sensitive, but most of her encounters, including that with her starchy boss (Nicholas Woodeson), are a failure of communication and invoke a culture clash. The only scene that doesn’t ring true is when she succumbs to the brash young man (Jolyon Coy) on whom she had been keen in her teens.

Lavinia Murray’s depiction of the young Beatrix Potter, chasing a rabbit through a graveyard, boiling a dead vixen to reassemble its bones and vowing not to be invisible when she grows up, is a joy. Once Upon a Time There Was a Beatrix, with Amelia Clarkson in the title role, is directed by Pauline Harris with a bravura, Gothic sensibility.

Present Laughter, R4, Saturday, April 6
The Flea, R4, Tuesday, April 16
A Girl in Winter, R4, Sunday, April 7
Once Upon a Time There Was a Beatrix, R4, Thursday, April 11