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Radio review: Dylan Thomas – The Beach of Falesa; The Guts

The premature deaths of two literary stars, a walk-on part for Richard Burton, locations that move between Wales, Hollywood and Polynesia, and a timely find for a radio producer: these could be the ingredients of a promising radio play, but are actually just parts of the backstory to a world premiere for BBC Radio 3.

Alison Hindell, who directs and adapts Dylan Thomas’ unfilmed screenplay The Beach of Falesa, was handed an old edition, published as a novella, by her stepdaughter, who found it in her new house in Sydney. The tale, based on an 1892 short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and written two years before his death in Samoa at 44, was adapted by Thomas in the late 1940s, just a few years before he himself died in New York, aged 39. Burton had once bought the film rights before dropping it due to the projected costs.

With its themes of colonialism and racism, Stevenson’s story was seen as a precursor of modernism much later on. The story pits British trader Wiltshire (played by Matthew Gravelle with a resonant tone), newly arrived on a South Sea island, against Case, an established Briton whom Nicky Henson plays with smug bombast, cynicism leaking from every pore. The narrative – the feud between the men, the interpolation of primitive magic and proselytising missionaries, a forced marriage that blossoms into true love – is imbued with a tone that is sometimes sinister, sometimes lyrical.

The Narrator is played gloriously by Matthew Rhys, surely the spiritual heir of Burton, reciting Thomas’ peerless evocation of landscape with stately relish. His character gives us the poetic prose familiar from Under Milk Wood, in which the sound, movement and physical form of words add texture and meaning.  The sibilance of phrases such as “the sound of the surf and sea fowl” are pure Thomas and, with Roger Goula’s lilting and thrilling original music, makes this production a feast for the senses.

The Guts, an adaptation by Peter Sheridan of Roddy Doyle’s  2013 novel about music man Jimmy Rabbitte, could not be less exotic. The lot of the middle-aged man is examined with dense humour. To add to his recession-fuelled woes, Jimmy has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. The play begins with a comic interlude – signalling that the story has moved on from its mid-1980s origins – when Jimmy (David Wilmot) tries to induct his father (Gerry O’Brien) into the use of Facebook. Jimmy Sr knows that social media will never replace the pub.

While some of the novel’s grittier language has been removed, this is identifiably Doyle. Age and illness tinge the social realism with melancholy: Jimmy finds his estranged brother also suffering from a diseased colon, while old music pal Outspan (Conleth Hill) limps into the action with a lung problem that makes bowel cancer look like a picnic.

Andy Walker, whose 2010 radio play The Man Who Jumped From Space, about a record-breaking high-altitude parachute jump, came with a memorably eerie ambience, returns with Bring Her Back, also directed by Gary Brown. I wasn’t able to access a preview of this in time for my previous review, but this doomsday thriller, about a killer infection and a secret vaccine available only to a minority, is worth a mention for its tense and conspiratorial atmosphere.

Walker cleverly subverts our initial view of microbiologist-to-the-rescue Jay (Jason Done), revealing him as selfish and egotistical. He does an emotional about-turn too late as his girlfriend (Erin Shanagher) faces death. This scene, which could have been cloying, is genuinely affecting.

Dylan Thomas – The Beach of Falesa, R3, Sunday, May 4
The Guts, R4, Saturday, April 26
Bring Her Back, R4, Wednesday, April 16

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