Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire / The Colour of Milk, Radio 3/4

“I know what you think, but I cannot turn away”

For reasons not entirely clear, Mark Ravenhill is curating a season of three classic plays that he likes for Radio 3, the first of which was Carol Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. It’s an interesting choice as it is a fairly challenging piece of historical drama and as I observed when I saw Polly Findlay’s production for the Arcola back in 2010, it is a highly theatrical one as the company of actors rattle through a large number of short scenes and an equally considerable cast of characters. Consequently, I don’t think it suited the medium of radio as the differentiation between them all didn’t really come across.

And being such a cerebral play, focusing on the tumultuous period in English history during the Civil War when huge social and political change was in the offing and tracing its impact on all levels of society, it needs a deal of clarity for it to be most effective and for me, the announcement of scene titles wasn’t enough. Which was a shame as the cast that Ravenhill gathered for this was brilliant – Amanda Drew and Monica Dolan, Justin Salinger and Paul Rhys, the kind of company I would pay extremely good money to see. You can’t win them all.

Much more successful for me was Nell Leyson’s adaptation of her own novel The Colour of Milk for Radio 4. Set in the 1830s, it’s a rather harrowing tale narrated by Mary, a fifteen-year-old girl who has a limited window of opportunity to tell us her story. Her life is one of rural toil on the family farm until one day she is summoned to the local vicar’s house to help with the rapidly declining health of his invalid wife. A world of new opportunities is thus opened to her but the consequences of these changes ripple out with devastating effect.

Susan Roberts’ production hits the jackpot by casting Carly Bawden as the opinionated Mary, somewhat unaware of the impact that she has on others yet endearing in her obliviousness until it is tragically too late. And having her sing the haunting folk songs that accompany the story is an excellent use of her undoubted talent. Peter Hamilton Dyer is chillingly compelling as the vicar whose demands grow ever greater and it makes for a stunning piece of drama altogether. 

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