Review: The Jinx Element, Radio 4

Having loved the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome that I listened to last week, my anticipation for The Jinx Element was quite high and that’s always a dangerous place to be. Sadly, my expectations weren’t really met by this radio play by Stephen Wakelam which told the story of Wharton’s affair with younger journalist Morton Fullerton, this being (part of at least) the inspiration for the story behind Ethan Frome. Told through the eyes of her friend Henry James, we see the impact of the liaison on the 47 year-old Wharton, on her stale marriage to Teddy Wharton and the creative impulses that it released in her.

But for whatever reason, it just didn’t click with me. In truth, it came across as a rather dull effort to me – the narrative device is one which I’m never sure about as it does mean that there’s a lot of reportage rather than action and it’s not always the most entertaining. It was nice to hear Fenella Woolgar as Wharton again though her performance was a little too restrained for my liking, and the same went for Patrick Baladi’s Morton and Allan Corduner’s Henry James – just too much reserve all around.

Review: Bette and Joan and Baby Jane

“We’re just two professional dames doing our jobs”

Last year saw Anton Burge’s play Bette and Joan prove something of a success at the Arts Theatre and it is now heading out on a national tour with Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi reprising their roles this year. But a radio play which played on Radio 4 back in 2010 covered similar ground first and as it was made available to download from the Audiogo website at a most reasonable price, I purchased a copy of Bette and Joan and Baby Jane. The debut radio play by Tracy-Ann Oberman, the story uses the incident-ridden filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to hang the tale of the deep-seated enmity between its stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, how their rivalry played out on the film set and also revisit some of the history between them.

Oberman takes on the role of Crawford herself and Catherine Tate plays Bette Davis: both give great vocal performances but Davis’ inimitable tones are a gift of a role and Tate rises to the challenge superbly, capturing perfectly the clipped Mid-Atlantic voice, often dripping with condescension. We start at the home of newshound Hedda Hopper who has secured an interview with the two women who were taking a huge risk by taking on such a daring project whilst both in something of a career dip. When Hopper can’t get the dirt she is looking for as the bitter relationship between the two was no secret, she takes more furtive means to get the story. Continue reading “Review: Bette and Joan and Baby Jane”

Review: Ethan Frome, Radio 4

“He felt like he was in another world”

And so my delving into the world of radio drama continues with this adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome. Serialised on Radio 4’s Woman Hour as was Possession, this didn’t appear to get the omnibus treatment so I had to listen to it in 15 minute chunks, but by leaving it until it had finished, I was able to listen to them all in one night. To be honest, I find the idea of listening to a part a day quite odd especially as they’re only 15 minutes long, but then the whole world of listening to the radio is alien to me and it obviously works well for them 😉

Ethan Frome is perhaps not as well known as Wharton’s other works such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but actually contains the most autobiographical detail as it took large inspiration from her own sexless marriage and ensuing passionate affair with a younger man. (The story of which is covered in the accompanying Saturday play The Jinx Element which I’ll be listening to next.) And Lin Coghlan’s dramatisation plays on this by making Edith Wharton, voiced here by the incomparable Fenella Woolgar, the narrator of the story. Continue reading “Review: Ethan Frome, Radio 4”

Radio Review: Possession, Radio 4

“It’s as if we’re waiting to be driven by their plot”

I’ve been something of a reluctant convert to radio drama, for every production I’ve enjoyed, there’s been one that has disappointed me, but if there is another that is as good as this version of Possession, then I will be a happy boy. Over the past three weekends, I have listened to the omnibus editions of this Radio 4 adaptation of AS Byatt’s novel by Timberlake Wertenbaker and have been utterly seduced by it. It was simply gorgeous, stunningly beautiful to listen to and deeply moving. I shall be investigating whether one can buy it as it really was that good.

Wertenbaker’s adaptation sees research assistant Roland Michell and literary scholar Maud Bailey recounting their quest to discover the secrets uncovered by two letters between Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and a woman named Christabel Lamotte which threaten to upturn literary history with their revelations. They are pursued by other more nefarious sorts who also want the correspondence and so the race is on to be the first to discover the truth. This story is enhanced by the reciting of letters between Ash and Lamotte as we follow their story of an illicit yet all-consumingly passionate affair which is revealed at the same time. Continue reading “Radio Review: Possession, Radio 4”

Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Radio 4

“How am I going to get back to Kansas?”

Following on from the less than sucessful adaptation of Goldfinger that left me cold, I was a little trepidatious about listening to this production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, especially as it soon came to light that it also featured narration – one of the things I disliked most about the Bond play – but it actually proved to be much more engaging and thoughtful, and ultimately considerably more entertaining. Linda Marshall Griffiths’ dramatisation has taken a fresh new look at the story, returning to L Frank Baum’s source novel and thereby casting off much of the baggage that might have come otherwise from just being a straight run of the film.

What we get then, is a highly atmospheric story, partly told by Amelia Clarkson’s excellent Dorothy as part of an inner monologue, which feels darker and more compelling that one might have expected. It is all largely recognisable, but it felt so much fresher here and interesting too. Emma Fielding was great value for money as all of the female characters, and Kevin Eldon, Burn Gorman and Zubin Varla all did well as the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and Lion respectively. And Clarkson captured the right note of youthful gumption to make Dorothy a thoroughly likeable heroine. Continue reading “Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Radio 4”

Review: Goldfinger, Radio 4

“Gold attracts the most ingenious criminals”

I’ve now figured out the best way for me to listen to plays on the radio, which is whilst recovering from a hangover in bed, and not doing anything else. So it was thus that I took in this all-star production of the James Bond story Goldfinger, Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel having been dramatised by Archie Scottney, and Ian McKellen recruited to take on the iconic villain against Toby Stephens’ secret agent. But I have to say, it was my least favourite of the radio plays that I have taken in recently, partly due to the terribly dated writing but also due to the way in which it was presented, being partly narrated by Martin Jarvis (also the director) as Fleming.

The narration made it seem really rather old-fashioned, a very traditional way of telling a story and that is how it came across, as a story rather than a play, a piece of drama. It felt rather flat and lacked excitement, despite the quality of the cast, but I think it also suffered a bit by comparison. No sound effect could ever replicate the visual of Oddjob’s deadly bowler hat (yet simultaneously, without that visual it would barely have any impact, a whooshing sound alone inspires little), likewise John Standing’s M’s gagdetry, and the constantly changing locations, within a short space of time, do not really lend themselves to effective drama – explanations needed too often. Continue reading “Review: Goldfinger, Radio 4”

Review: The Recruiting Officer, Radio 3

“He that bids the fairest, has me”

So following on from the production of Our Country’s Good on Radio 4, Radio 3 then had the version of The Recruiting Officer as ‘performed’ by the cast of convicts. I love reading about plays I’ve never heard of – The Recruiting Officer is Josie Rourke’s opening salvo at the Donmar Warehouse so I’ll get to see it fairly soon – and reading about it, I was duly informed that it was the most popular play in the entire 18th Century (even more so than Hamlet…) and its other claim to fame is that it was the first play to be performed in Australia (though I suppose that assumes that there’s no theatre in the Aborigine culture). As I now know, this latter point is the crux of Our Country’s Good, which I rather enjoyed, so I was quite content to spend the second half of my journey finishing this double bill.

Sadly though, it wasn’t half as entertaining for me (and not just because of the devil’s spawn that got on my carriage at Crewe). The antics of this Restoration comedy – where army officers descend on Shrewsbury to seduce new recruits into bolstering the army and to seduce women into marriage and/or their beds – didn’t quite come across as well as I would have hoped. Having lost the physical side of the humour, I just didn’t really get into the right mindset for it at any point, it rarely made me laugh and not knowing the play, I was also quite a bit confused about who everyone was – I definitely needed the visual clues! Continue reading “Review: The Recruiting Officer, Radio 3”

Review: Our Country’s Good, Radio 4

“Who would act in a play?
‘The convicts of course’”

I hadn’t ever listened to a play on the radio before until Mike Bartlett’s Cock last month (indeed I don’t listen to the radio at all) and though I enjoyed revisiting that show, I couldn’t quite figure out the logistics of listening to theatre, eventually figuring out that I actually needed to stop doing anything else and just give it my full attention. I don’t really have much spare time though so I didn’t think that I’d be returning to the wireless to increase my theatrical fix. But a double bill of fascinating plays – Our Country’s Good and The Recruiting Officer – with an all-star thesp-heavy cast tempted me back and provided me with a most entertaining soundtrack for my Christmas journey home.

Funnily enough, I have seen neither play before but have tickets to see both in the early months of next year: Our Country’s Good at the Rose, Kingston and The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar, and I hadn’t realised the connection between the two before starting the first play. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is based on a novel by Thomas Keneally which tells the true story of Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s 1789 attempts to put on a production of George Farquhar’s play The Recruiting Officer using a cast of convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales. This radio production was then followed by the convicts’ version of The Recruiting Officer, using much of the same cast. Continue reading “Review: Our Country’s Good, Radio 4”

Review: Cock, Radio 3

”You want your boyfriend’s help with the woman you’re sleeping with”

I don’t listen to the radio much at all, but when Twitter notified me of the broadcasting of Mike Bartlett’s play Cock on Radio 3, with the original cast intact, I decided to make an exception. It was a play that I very much enjoyed when I saw it at the Royal Court Upstairs back in December 2009 and Bartlett has emerged as one of my favourite new writers, especially when he is focusing on the sharp intimate edges of human relationships.

Cock focuses on John’s difficulties when he realises how fluid his sexuality is. During a rough patch with his boyfriend, he has a random hook-up with a woman he has seen before on his daily commute and his eyes are opened to a whole world of new possibilities. But as he decides what, and who, he wants, the pressure from the others to make a choice increases.

Continue reading “Review: Cock, Radio 3”