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Radio review: Topaz; Goodbye; The Man in the Lift

As a simulation of what his contemporaries must have felt about the doggerel verse of William McGonagall, Lucy Gannon’s drama, Topaz, goes beyond mere narrative.

For her play about the 19th-century wannabe poet – whose self-belief was undiminished despite the rotten fish hurled at him and attempts by the authorities to ban his performances – induces emotions that must have been familiar to his audiences.

You feel an almost sickening jolt at the way his poems don’t scan, and a sense of nausea at the inappropriate jollity and mundanity he conjures up when trying to be sombre – The Tay Bridge Disaster, his best-known poem, is a perfect example.

You side with his wife, played at the pitch of exasperation by Maureen Beattie, when he abandons what work there still is as a weaver to pursue his misconceived calling and invest money the struggling family cannot afford into publishing his verse.

This happens after a “strange feeling creeps over” him in 1877, when he is 52, but he has form as one with grandiose ambitions in the arts. He once had to pay a theatre to let him play Macbeth, but refused to die, as directed by Shakespeare, because he thought the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him.

McGonagall entered and exited the world in the Greyfriars district of Edinburgh, but spent most of his life in Dundee, leaving the way open for terrier Bobby, who is said to have guarded the cemetery grave
of his owner for 14 years, to become Greyfriars’ most celebrated inhabitant. McGonagall is played by Brian Cox, a Dundonian himself, who has always championed the errant wordsmith. Cox has all the puff and bluster required to keep the man afloat, despite the reaction he gets – a mixture of disbelief, acrimony and laughter.

Gannon focuses on one event in 1878, when McGonagall decides to walk from Dundee to Balmoral to petition Queen Victoria for her patronage. His unremitting confidence in his talents, and habit of lapsing into bad versification at any chance, provokes irritation and ennui, although it also bears out the recent suggestion he may have had Asperger’s.

But Gannon and Cox then rescue McGonagall – and the audience – with a fictional scene in which the poet has tea in the grounds of Balmoral with Victoria (Niamh Cusack) and a servant, believing the monarch is a governess. Fondness returns in a warm gust. McGonagall modestly says of the encounter: “We just blethered, had a tea and a cake and a laugh”.

His reputation, the play tells us, is not as a third-rate poet but as a vaudevillian, a stand-up act, a comic of the surreal; the progenitor of Spike Milligan, the Goons and Monty Python.

If failure can be uplifting, so can death, as Morwenna Banks suggests in her play Goodbye. Olivia Colman’s sharp sense of timing – comic and tragic – as the young mother dying of breast cancer makes the most of every line. Opposite her, Natascha McElhone, as the best friend with her own dilemmas, is contained and real. John Simm and Alison Steadman take smaller roles, an indication of how good this drama is, never making the dubious transition from credible emotion to sentimentality.

Author and director Tom Connolly’s first radio play, The Man in the Lift, unites the disparate residents of a tower block by the presence of a stranger. The man mending the lift (John Light) is a detective of the psyche, a social anthropologist, piecing together the clues offered during a ride in his lift. The patchwork of conversations by an ensemble cast including Phyllida Law, Montanna Thompson and Ruth Gemmell intrigue and then elucidate.

Topaz, R4, Saturday, October 26
Goodbye, R4, Saturday, October 19
The Man in the Lift, R4, Friday, October 18

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