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Radio review: The Liberty of Norton Folgate; The Wind in the Willows; Mrs Updike

A few crummy pop songs and an indifferent script don’t make a musical – as Viva Forever! demonstrates. But not even when the music is brilliant can you prop a thin dramatic edifice alongside it and call it a play.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is inspired by the 2009 Madness album of the same name, a rhythmic depiction of life in a corner of east London where waves of immigrants have settled alongside the fat cat business of the Square Mile.

Author Mark Davies Markham also wrote the book for Taboo, the 2002 stage musical about Boy George, but then he had the singer’s waspish sound-bites to fall back on and, if all else failed, the dressing-up box of the new romantics – though a more unromantic bunch I’ve never met.

In this new drama, Vincent Ebrahim and Pooja Ghai play the proprietors of a cafe threatened by a property developer (Patrick Brennan), who spends an unlikely amount of time posturing as a panto racist when he could be muscling his way past all colours and creeds before turning his attention to concreting over the green belt.

The characters are miserably under-fleshed to the point of emaciation, and a diversion into a Passport to Pimlico plot whimsy is exasperating.

The music, though, is a triumph – richly layered, swirling, Dickensian and yet contemporary. The band’s Suggs, Chas Smith and Mike Barson – who, the others joke, has just “flown in” from Amsterdam – make cameo appearances, but the script might as well have been dispensed with in favour of putting the album on repeat. There is one good joke and, tellingly, it’s a musical one. “Don’t do a Harold Melvin and leave me this way” is a reference to the 1970s Philly hit from the man who sang with the Blue Notes.

[pullquote]Madness’ music is a triumph, but the script might as well have been dispensed with in favour of putting the album on repeat[/pullquote]

A new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows by Neil Brand, who has also written the lush score, features a similar problem – the music engulfs the drama.

Expertly played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the BBC Singers, the music is pastoral, celestial, frolicsome and brutal. It is all the locations, from river bank to wood, all the action, from a spring-cleaning session to a motor chase, and all emotional states, from bumptious arrogance to the dark night of the soul.

There is little left for the characters to do, although Philip Jackson’s Badger is doughty, Claire Skinner’s Mole is winsome and Stephen Mangan’s Toad is the character’s ineffable self.

Great men of letters are often arrogant, too. John Updike was snottily abrasive towards his mother, as Margaret Heffernan illuminatingly recounts in Mrs Updike. He is no psycho mum-hater, though, for she is hard to love – a failed writer, sentimental and untruthful, whereas John uncompromisingly crashed through the picket fence surrounding middle-class, middle America.

The question of where Eileen Atkins went after TV’s dismal Upstairs Downstairs revival is answered. She landed in radio drama, and is acerbic, pushy and perceptive as Mrs Updike, opposite Charles Edwards as John.

Jonathan Holloway’s dramatisation of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the best of BBC Radio 4’s George Orwell season. He begins as he means to go on with the audacious dumping of the famous opening line. The characters are more than ciphers in a totalitarian nightmare. Christopher Eccleston is outstanding as the unsettled Winston. With Pippa Nixon as his co-rebel and lover Julia, the performances enrich the familiar narrative.

Clare in the Community ended its eighth series in incredible form, in an episode allying absurdism, pratfalls and a rearguard action against the mother-in-law. Playing Clare, Sally Phillips is the mistress of comic timing, sardonic even while slipping on the banana skin she carelessly strews before her. The best comedy on radio.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate, R4, Saturday, February 9
The Wind in the Willows, R4, Saturday, February 16
Drama on 3 – Mrs Updike, R3, Sunday, February 10
The Real George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four, R4, Sunday, February 10
Clare in the Community, R4, Wednesday, February 6

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