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Radio review: Roots; Hamlet; Rumpole and the Old Boy Net; Doing Time: The Last Ballad of Reading Gaol

The notion that a young woman might learn, slowly and painfully, to articulate her thoughts is a novel one in these days of randomly fired Twitter responses.

The final, triumphal speech in Arnold Wesker’s Roots, in which Beatie discovers that she is capable of joined-up thinking, wouldn’t have made it into a contemporary rewrite. She’d have been too busy updating her Facebook status to single after getting the news that her eloquent boyfriend had dumped her. This is the cathartic event which propels Beatie to take the first, tentative steps towards independence and self-belief.

It’s a juicy role for a woman and Jessica Raine brings a mastery of emotional nuance to it, as well as a broad Norfolk accent. ‘A car-mic’ she intones of the low-level reading material she hides behind the Manchester Guardian. Having braised slowly in a London set of budding political and cultural revolutionaries in which her lover is an archetypal Angry Young Man, she returns to her family of farm labourers where life is more about beets than the Beat Generation.

Her sentiments swing from whooping joyousness to a crestfallen tristesse when a neighbour dies, which carries a hint of careless petulance. A neonate when it comes to intellectual discourse, she initially proffers only reiterations of her boyfriend’s views, clawing away at what she sees as her family’s vapidity. As her mother, Linda Bassett is marvellously doughty, turning the argument back on to Beatie, who is finally moved to her climactic speech with an excoriation of pulp culture and the third-rate. Here, Wesker’s play becomes more than a classic of kitchen sink drama and conveys a message to today’s audience. Its safe delivery is assured in James Macdonald’s gripping Donmar Warehouse production, transposed with aplomb to radio, with its strong, original cast and assured yet tremulous central performance.

The first episode of Hamlet, that seminal text of Nordic noir, stranded across a whole week of Afternoon Dramas, offers a masterclass in how to create an atmosphere of swirling, sepulchral doom. Roger Goula’s original music, gorgeous and expectant, works with Marc Beeby’s direction to impart a chill to proceedings. Jamie Parker is solemnly set on his vengeful mission as Hamlet, with a clear reading of these familiar speeches, while Lizzy Watts’ Ophelia is a demure innocent, more peaky than insane.

Vital to the longevity of a character is the scope for reinterpretation and Benedict Cumberbatch, playing John Mortimer’s barrister as a youngish man in Rumpole and the Old Boy Net, gives a rendition of the role which is far from the blustery, roaring yet endearing portrayal by Leo McKern on TV. If it marries more with Timothy West’s subtle portrayal of the older Rumpole on radio, Cumberbatch’s skill is in not tying up all the loose ends or giving a colouring by numbers exposition of a personality in development. His Rumpole sometimes sounds vaguely on the fringes of autism until a few tipples brings a familiar sozzled bonhomie. Most notable is the nifty comic turns he executes in a highly stylised way, a bit like if Bertie Wooster had been born with brains.

Doing Time – The Last Ballad of Reading Gaol is no laughing matter as unwilling spectral residents of the prison’s 170-year history drift through its echoing innards with stories of cruelty, injustice and evil (Annette Badland’s creepy baby murderer). The best lines go not to Oscar Wilde (Ifan Meredith) but to Jonathan Forbes’ droll member of the Irish Easter Rising. Mike Walker’s play, marking the prison’s closure last year, is pungent with misery.

Roots, R3, Sunday March 23
Hamlet, R4, Monday March 24
Rumpole and the Old Boy Net, R4, Thursday March 20
Doing Time: The Last Ballad of Reading Gaol, R4, Thursday March 13

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