Radio review: Two Minutes Hate; We are the BBC; Bearing Witness

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The Leveson Inquiry was an artful employer of celebrities and provided easier PR/career enhancement than broiling in the Australian jungle. Whatever Leveson’s conclusions, a radio play in which a journalist comes to a sticky end, aired the day after the report’s publication, was always going to be a winner, because of course journalists are such terrible people.

Kieran Prendiville’s drama Two Minutes Hate, the title culled from a vindictive rabble scene in Orwell’s 1984, takes the fascinating scenario of Jennifer who, like Maxine Carr, provides her child murderer boyfriend with an alibi, and after prison is given lifelong anonymity. Granting the order, the judge decries press coverage: “It is as if Leveson had never happened.” Risky – especially now it’s clear that ‘statutory underpinning’ breaches human rights laws.

Although rich with dramatic possibilities, it would be in portraying the subtleties of her everyday life, the constant fear of being unmasked and the pressure of living with an alien identity that this play would stand or fall. At first, we hear the nerviness and caution that infuses every minute of her day and the nasty scene that erupts when she is recognised. Played by Jasmine Hyde, Jennifer is self-effacing, kindly, staunchly middle-class and almost certainly shops at Waitrose and sponsors a child in Africa.

The other side of the coin is represented by journalist Jane (Sasha Behar), who tracks down Jennifer and drives the murdered child’s father to confront her, which is lunatic and criminal. Jane, who has helped run a campaign for householders to use necessary force against intruders, is killed by Jennifer’s builder, who thinks she is part of a lynch mob. What a shame that a psychological portrait is subverted into black comedy. Prendiville is a skilled dramatist, but his Ballykissangel quirkiness is unwarranted here.

The darkness in Susan Casanove’s We are the BBC is appropriate, as the villainy is arch, mannered and comedic. Adam Hall is the egregious and overbearing Rob Sterling Davies, who steals an autobiographical script from an unknown author and makes his name. The victim’s girlfriend and avenger is played by the writer, who has the endearing quality of Joanna Page’s Stacey, while Simon Stanhope is hilariously camp as Rob’s despairing agent.

Enthusiastic renditions of themselves come from Stephen Fry and Nicholas Parsons, both supporters of the Wireless Theatre Company, on whose website this play is currently top of its download chart.

The dilemma of lawyers who defend those whom others see as indefensible is not really an issue for the law bods, as they must necessarily cleave to the underlying principle that everyone deserves a fair trial. With his play Bearing Witness, about the counsel for a man accused of war crimes at the Hague, Philip Palmer walks the tightrope between these two points of view with extraordinary deftness.

Mark Bonnar is thoroughly convincing as the lawyer who sidesteps the creepy ‘do you think I’m guilty?’ insouciance of odious client Zukic (Serge Soric), with Stephanie Racine as the more emotional co-counsel. Directed by Sasha Yevtushenko, this is a compelling production, combining courtroom veracity with human failings.

One to watch is novelist James Runcie, son of a former archbishop of Canterbury, whose first foray into crime fiction comes in the gentle shape of a 1950s country vicar and part-time detective. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death has been optioned for TV, and perhaps for this reason is not dramatised for radio but read delightfully well by Alex Jennings. He manages falsetto squeaks when the alluring ladies utter Brief Encounter-style lines such as, “You must think me cheap”. All very comforting.

Two Minutes Hate, R4, Thursday, November 29
We are the BBC, available to download at www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk
Bearing Witness, R4, Wednesday, December 12
Sydney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, R4 Extra, Monday, December 10

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