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Radio review: Red Velvet; Eugenie Grandet

Fledgling dramatists tend to write about the familiar: mercifully, the muse visits few plumbers, so we are spared the agonies of the U-bend. Lolita Chakrabarti is also an actor, so her solo stage writing debut, Red Velvet, for the Tricycle Theatre in 2012, is as much about the art, technique and expectations of acting as about the racist backlash against 19th-century black actor Ira Aldridge, when cast as Othello, condemning him to a career of provincial touring.

Bringing stage plays to a nationwide audience is one of the great services offered by radio, and I was glad to see this multi award-winning drama, which has since played a successful off-Broadway season, pop up in the schedules. As is generally the case with stage-to-radio transfers, it features the original director (Indhu Rubasingham) and New York-seasoned cast, led by Adrian Lester (himself an award winner in this role).

Radio copes well with shifts in time: the drama begins and ends in 1867, shortly before Aldridge’s death, but the thrust of the action is set in 1833, during his doomed, blink-of-an-eye rendition of the Moor at the Theatre Royal, London, replacing an ailing Edmund Kean. For a play in which there is much demonstration of competing styles of acting – Aldridge parodies the “teapot” school and advocates robust rhythm and gesture that come from finding the truth in a role – the lack of the visual element seems to matters not a jot. The physicality of his style, inadvertently bruising his Desdemona (Charlotte Lucas as the amiable but fluttery Ellen Tree), is conjured through palpable high emotion, one of several fever-pitch crescendos.

While Aldridge’s backstory of injustice in his native US is only briefly alluded to (scope here for the posited screenplay), its bitter legacy can be felt in Lester’s powerhouse of a performance when his hopes of success in the role are crushed. Worst of all, he faces the cruel pragmatism of his one-time supporter Pierre, played by Eugene O’Hare as an ooh-la-la Frenchman sinking into Iago-style treachery. Notable also is Oliver Ryan as Kean’s son, wallowing in entitlement, sloppily indifferent as Iago, combative and superior towards Aldridge.

The anachronistic language doesn’t jar, but the bookend scenes of the older, reflective Aldridge distract with a minor plot about a young reporter. Lester, who went on to play Othello at the National the year after this play premiered, is mesmeric though, whether shivering at the beauty of Shakespeare or the savagery of life.

The transition from literary classic to full-blown radio drama can be a perilous one, but a sensitive and nuanced adaptation by author Rose Tremain of Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugenie Grandet makes for a satisfying serialisation. Ian McKellen, in a magisterial performance as Eugenie’s father, a miser hiding his hoard, is a man of many moods, of light and shade. Meanwhile, the eponymous character’s ill-intentioned suitor Charles is given both to swagger and a pathetic tendency to snivel by Blake Ritson. Alison Pettitt’s Eugenie is immature, but steeliness emerges. Gordon House’s seductive production ripples with Lucinda Mason Brown’s mournful cello compositions, beautifully played by Alison Baldwin.

Over five series of The Pursuits of Darleen Fyles, stage and broadcast playwright Esther Wilson’s funny, feisty, optimistic creation – a young woman with learning disabilities – has negotiated her way around an unfeeling world into independence and marriage. The union of Wilson’s sharp writing – never more moving than when it is deeply comic – and winning performances by Donna Lavin and Edmund Davies, actors with learning disabilities who part-extemporise, is as fresh and startling as ever with series six.

Red Velvet, R4, Saturday, July 19
Eugenie Grandet, R4, Sunday, July 27
The Pursuits of Darleen Fyles, R4, Monday, July 21