How does it feel to hold someone’s heart in your hands? How do you tell a young patient that he’s dying? What do you do when, on a quiet ward in the middle of the night, a patient you’ve grown close to invites you into his bed? This vivid portrayal of the day-to-day life of young female surgeon, and the medical and moral dilemmas she faces, is based on the memoir by Gabriel Weston. One of few women in an alpha male world, she finds herself continually questioning where a doctor should draw the line between being detached and being human. And it’s the conflict between these opposing forces – the personal and professional – that lies at the heart of this powerful play, which has been adapted for radio by Tina Pepler.
A BBC/Cymru Wales production, directed by Kate McAll.
I listened to this play on Monday, fully expecting to be alternately shocked, appalled, saddened and intrigued by the life of a young surgeon from first day as a Junior House Officer to the more experienced surgeon Dr. Weston. I was warned before listening that I might find the vivid descriptions disturbing, the subject matter upsetting, and I was slightly on edge by the time I pressed play.
What I got, for 58 minutes, was the overused trope of tired, philosophical doctor, talking to me in a droning monologue of the apparently life-affirming experiences she has had while at no time raising the tone of her voice to anything that might suggest she has or had any feelings about anything. Yes, some of the experiences were painfully sad, some horribly out of control, others poignant and surreal – but they were dictated to the audience as though they were being read off the page, not acted at all. I wanted to feels something from the protagonist, other than that a life in medicine had worn her down to the point of disillusion, but I was left feeling that the emotion was too little: I was as distant as one of her patients, and never quite satisfied.
Direct Red jumps from timeframe to timeframe with very little change in tone or setting, and also without any discernible explanation. As a train of consciousness, the narrative works well, and as this is a story in which “nothing happens”, it doesn’t really matter that the telling isn’t linear. I got the feeling that these short bursts of memory were just a selection of what Dr. Weston could have told us about her life in medicine, but was struck again by the lack of compassion or personal detail. It is mentioned frequently that being a doctor plays havoc with your sex and social lives, yet we are not given any details of her current situation – other than an almost illegal dalliance with a patient that I found myself clinging to in the hope that it would wake Dr. Weston from her spell of colourless monotony.
I was disappointed. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that for a narrative that promised so much, it delivered very little. What it did deliver was nothing that I felt any creative writing student could have produced – there was no indication that a doctor’s insight was in any way meaningful to the story: the situations were typical, the descriptions obvious and the overall tone well-expected. Although the blurb claims that the “conflict between personal and professional” is at the heart of the play, I felt from the very beginning that professional had won the battle off-stage before Dr. Weston and I had even been introduced. There was a lack of development, or reminiscence, in the protagonist’s escalation from medical student to doctor, and I would have been interested to know how such a distant and cautious professional woman appeared from, presumably, a vibrant and motivated young student.
A year ago Caspar was locked up and declared criminally insane. Finally he breaks his silence to reveal a deadly tale of love and politics. But is he telling the truth? A psychological thriller by Adrian Penketh.
Directed by Toby Swift
***** Adrian Penketh has written a number of plays for Radio 4, including THE WATERBUCKS, which was shortlisted for the Imison Award, and an adaptation of Balzac’s THE WILD ASSES SKIN which was runner-up for the Prix Italia in 2011.
Caspar: Paul Rhys
Helene: Fenella Woolgar
Felix: David Schofield
Baptiste: Christopher Fairbank
Elodie Testoud: Matilda Ziegler
TV Director: Sam Alexander
This is, rarely, a play that may take more than one listen to fully appreciate. As simple as the summary above sounds, this play is layered and complex in its narrative style, yet gives very little away. This works well in some respects: although Casper is for the most part our narrator, his telling is often so unrealistic that we question the reality of his other statements and claims of innocence. Yet the fact that the play repeats its beginning once the story has been told leads me to believe that the directors knew that what they had done was unclear and felt that it was necessary to remind the audience what they had heard so that they could finally join up the dots.
Other plays, such as the three-part drama (not reviewed here) earlier in the year Pandemic, managed to achieve this non-linear, layered narrative over the course of three days and three separate hours, each with different characters in different timeframes. So my primary criticism of A Special Kind of Dark is that it could not keep clear the story it was telling.
To unpick it is relatively simple: Felix, a candidate for First Minister, and his quiet poet wife Helene live in an apartment block near Caspar. He strikes up an affair with Helene after she comes to him to escape from her husband’s beatings. In between alarmingly cheerful dinner dates during which Caspar feels panicky and often quite ill, he is bombarded with odd and seemingly random questions from Inspector Baptiste. After deciding that he and Helene should run away together, he is invited round to dinner once more only to find that she will not acknowledge him as a lover. Feeling very faint and sick, he is taken home by Helene at Felix’s behest, only to wake the next morning to find Inspector Baptiste standing over him and the bloody remains of Helene in his bed. Off-stage, he is arrested, charged and – according to the blurb – declared criminally instance. Elodie Testoud becomes his psychologist, interviewing him in the intervening year about his actions, yet when he finally tells the story from his point of view – that it must have been Felix who murdered his wife and framed Caspar – she is visited by Baptiste to be questioned, and also informed that Caspar has committed suicide. Testoud takes as many of the recordings of her interviews with Caspar away with her, but is killed on a level crossing before she can take the matter any further.
The story is told, however, by beginning with Testoud. She is determined that Baptiste will not get his hands on the recordings, as she does not trust him, so she takes them with her. We join her in her car trapped on a level crossing between two vehicles which refuse to move. She is killed by the train. The narrative them jumps to Felix’s address as First Minister, promising to make level crossings safer for all. Then, back to Testoud, this time talking to Baptiste about Caspar’s death, and finally we hear Caspar’s voice as he relates the story of Helene’s murder to Testoud. It is after an atmospheric rendition of the story that we are returned to the ‘present’: hearing Felix’s address again, this time with a new subtext as we hear him/his voice telling Caspar that he ought to take his life and join Helene. Finally, Testoud’s death is replayed.
My feeling is that if we need to hear Felix’s address twice, then something is missing early on. Testoud tells us that she “would have to hear the story a number of times before drawing any conclusions”, indicating that the audience too must listen carefully, if not again, to the piece. On a second listen the plot is clearer, but exposition is slow, although the seeds of Felix and Casper’s connection are planted early on, it is often unclear who is being referred to and when the conversations are taking place. Tales within tales need to be carefully paced and perhaps this drama needed more thought to ensure that the scene is properly set. The dramatic beginning, as loud and brash as it is, perhaps spoils the pace in this way.
The question this drama asks is simple: was Felix so desperate to become First Minister that he murdered his wife and framed an unstable man so as to improve public perception of him, thereby necessitating the murder of Testoud – making it look like an accident, of course – with Baptiste by his side as a corrupt police officer? Or did Caspar invent the affair with Helene, the abusive marriage, and the voice of Felix in his head telling him to drown himself, and in fact murder Helene after luring her back to his apartment? Is Caspar insane, or manipulated?
Casper is an unreliable narrator, and it is through his narrative that most questions are asked. We are told that he is a fan of film noir, and then he begins his tale of meeting Helene with the line: “Being along made me happy. It was like a free seat on a plane. Then someone sat in it.” When it just so happens that Helene becomes a noir-like damsel in distress, Casper feels that he is able to play the role of hero, albeit unsuccessfully. Is this too good to be true? The dialogue is cinematic, confessional: “I wake up in the morning and I savour that first minute in which I’ve forgotten how much I’m going to hate every minute after that”, if it seems unrealistic perhaps that’s because it is supposed to be. The more Helene and Casper speak, the more the audience wonders whether they are an invention of Casper’s imagination. Phrases echo throughout: ISFJ, “the quality of mercy is not strained”, “You win” “I always do”, as does the quiet jazz in the background when Helene speaks.
Baptiste’s questions, too, are so bizarre that they could be imagined, but could also be misconstrued security vetting. The strange dinners with Felix and Helene are more confusing. Is Casper being poisoned, or is he merely nervous? Does Helene remember the meetings Casper remembers? Is Helene in on the plan? Is he merely being tested and manipulated into being Felix’s scapegoat? Felix’s lecture on the haiku is strangely reminiscent of Bateman’s essays on Genesis in American Psycho. But we don’t know if this is merely Casper’s perception, or whether we can trust him. By the end we are unsure whether Felix is with Casper in his cell – and whether he has the means to – or whether we are hearing the voice inside Casper’s head.
Noise is used well in the drama, the clamouring confusion in Casper’s head brilliantly shown in the final dinner scene, where music, dancing, Felix’s shouting, the sound of the pipes causing a cacophony that almost hurts. Felix’s voice lilts, throughout, seeming to dip in one ear and out the other – this causes a dizziness that surely intends to mimic Casper’s confusion. “He was not well”, we are told. “I need you,” Felix tells Casper, but we don’t know at this point what we are hearing.
I’ve written too much on this play, so I think what I mean is that it’s worth a listen. Surreal, loud and fascinating, I’d love to know what everyone else thinks!
The drama is set in 2018. Assisted suicide has been legalised in the UK.
Ben Fearnside is an abstract expressionist painter. He has had some success with London galleries but his work has now fallen out of fashion. Without an audience his life-work is unwitnessed and ‘uncreated’. He decides to make one final piece of art: he will capture a dying breath in a jar and exhibit it.
Ben invites freelance radio producer Anita Sullivan to profile him and document the process of capturing The Last Breath. But as the date for breath capture approaches, the identity of the donor remains a mystery.
‘The Last Breath’ is a high-concept piece of drama about a high-concept piece of art. It plays with narrative form by blending documentary and drama, using real people and real names with a fictional story. The play asks some big questions: what is art, what should be sacrificed in the name of art… and what is the price of a soul?
The Last Breath was created by Ben Fearnside with Anita Sullivan
Nicky is played by Nicola Walker The interviewees are; Derek and Mo Fearnside, Ben Fletcher, Professor Emma Jones, Anthony Chopper White, Linda Keenan and Dr Mark Gretason. The Static State artists are; Kenny Watson, Alex Allan, Joseph Watts and Robert Perry.
Music was written and performed by Nick Tettersell.
Producer: Karen Rose A Sweet Talk production for BBC Radio 4.
In the tradition of Wyndham, this is a science fiction that does not dwell on the ‘science’, but rather the human impact of the technology which is so carefully obscured. Fearnside’s breath-capturing device is never really explained, in spite of Anita’s interview with a medical physicist, although familiar references to jars and vacuum seals are mentioned in spite of the fact that hopefully the technology would be slightly more sophisticated than a jam jar!
By melding the genres of performance art, documentary and drama, this play manages to ask the obvious questions without ever coming out and saying ‘why?’, or resorting to argument, but rather in the measured tones of Anita’s interviews – which would almost be dull if it were not for the constant wonder of when It will happen and What Anita will do when she realises.
As a criticism, I would say therefore that Ben’s decision to become the last breath donor is obvious – perhaps obvious to anyone who’s heard about performance art or indeed read a piece of fiction. It is then to the credit of the writers that Anita does not break down at the news, or shout at Ben, but instead talk to him in her characteristically stilted manner, as though this conversation were just another interview. Her passive interviews allow us again to ask the questions, and come to our own conclusions about whether or not Ben is courageous or idiotic to go through with his artwork.
Similarly – again – to Wyndham, the technique of having the main action off-stage and instead reported is Anita’s friend Nicky’s voicemails is well-employed. This is something I’ve always enjoyed about Wyndham: action occurs but we do not ever see the meat of it, instead we are given newspaper reports or over-dinner conversations – and Last Breath does this remarkably well. This leaves the listener to ask herself questions and imaging scenes rather than relying on Anita to ask or act them out for her, and red herrings such as Nicky’s phonecalls are constantly included to cloud the issue – as it would be in life. Also, the final scene with Ben at the seaside is sparse and artfully done – there is another red herring in the form of Anita’s obvious affection for the artist and we might find ourselves wondering if they are indeed falling for each other and how another story would have handled this development. Rather than go down the Disney route of ‘love conquering all’ however, perhaps it is more moving that Anita rather lets (assists?) Ben in going through with his suicide rather than fighting him. Or so we assume from Nicky’s message.
Overall, I would say this is a cleverly, if demurely, produced play that benefits from its reluctance to be direct. I can see that this would not be for everyone as it does rather skirt around the issues of either art or suicide, but instead it produces a compelling and neutral exploration of death as art.
After being violently raped by someone she thought was a friend, Maddy is urged by the police to go public and prosecute her attacker, with very mixed results.
LISTEN HERE, until Sunday 20th May.
I listened to this sometime predictable, often harrowing, account over the course of last week – despite the fact that I was often in serious danger of crying at my desk. From the recognisable and lighthearted beginning that quickly turns sinister and shocking, through the breakdown of friendships, relationships and family ties, to the final 15 minutes in the courtroom and the verdict (Not Guilty), I was hooked and compelled to continue listening.
Part of the reason I felt as though I couldn’t stop listening was the detail included in this play, and its desire to “kill the darlings” throughout. The rape takes place within the first five minutes of the first episode, in somewhat horrific detail, and in the fourth instalment Maddy describes to her boyfriend in a monotone that tells of her boredom of recounting the sordid tale exactly what happened to her. We are not given metaphors or cut-scenes, everything is told on-stage and directly to us, whether or not we feel ready to hear it. The detail and avoidance of shying away from the detail is sickening, but I appreciated the honesty with which this was told. There are a number of lines and scenes that brought home the brutality of the whole event, and just how atypical everyone’s reaction is when faced with such a sudden and life-changing event.
It is this compulsion to turn to the worst possible scenario that makes the story a little unbelievable, however. Maddy’s horrific attack not being enough; her friends turn against her as they believe that she is lying about the extent of the violence/consensual nature of the sex, her boyfriend dumps her once he hears the details of the rape, her father questions her willingness to sleep with her attacker and then turns to alcohol, her rapist fabricates a story about their imagined ‘sex life’ and journalists turn on her, suggesting too that she is a liar and deserves everything she gets. The number of Things Gone Wrong with this story are, I think, a little too high to be believable, but I’m willing to forgive that as I feel that this play stood as a metaphor for the theme of rape culture rather than a story of one girl’s impossible situation. Every possible viewpoint on Maddy’s rape, and a number of similar experiences, are represented in some way and to work all of this into 15-minute chunks is certainly a feat – and in this case one which has been completed successfully.
In spite of some clumsy and obvious dialogue, there were some truly poignant scenes in this drama, and while the characters are sometimes quite clearly vehicles for rape culture viewpoints it is hard not to find an opinion that challenges. I think it’s definitely worth a listen, even if you think you know what your opinions are, as there’ll be sure to be something that sticks in the mind. Finally, kudos to R4 Woman’s Hour for not turning away from something so divisive, and instead using their 15-Minute Drama vehicle for something so radically different.
Friday Drama: Bad Memories
In 2004, a successful architect and his family mysteriously disappear from their home. Six years later five bodies are found in the cellar of their house. They are identified as Jonathan and Imogen Blake and their son, Matthew; Philip Gibson, who was on the missing person’s register and a woman, identity unknown. Forensics determine that not only were they murdered, but the time of death was1926. Can audio files found with the bodies solve the mystery?
Cast: Rachel Weir ….. Nicola Walker Jim Marquez ….. Rupert Graves Phillip Gibson ….. Steven Mackintosh Jonathan Blake ….. Anthony Calf Imogen Blake ….. Jana Carpenter Matthew Blake ….. Oscar Richardson Mary Marston ….. Imogen MCCurdy Boy 1 …… Ashley Cook Boy 2 …… Marcus Webb
Written and directed by Julian Simpson.
Recorded by Lucinda Mason Brown and David Chilton at Stanmer House in Brighton. Sound design by David Chilton
Producer: Karen Rose A Sweet Talk Production for BBC Radio 4.
Bad Memories is a typical ‘family home gone wrong’ ghost story, in which a small family with a young child move into a haunted house and, as expected, are haunted and then worse. After calling in a paranormal investigator, Philip Gibson, who records the murderous ghost-girl to verify her presence but in doing so antagonises her. She ups the ante, asking the young boy Matthew to join her – “come and play”. But when he and his family attempt to escape, they are murdered by the ghost who seems to have supernatural control over the house; creating doors where they no longer exist and luring the family and Gibson into a room from her past in order to kill them. Their bodies, and that of an unidentified woman, are accidentally and literally stumbled upon by two students exploring the spooky house, and police investigators then find Gibsons recordings under the – seemingly 100 year-old – bodies.
There is much to confuse and intrigue here, and the paradox between the modern tape and family disappearance and the old bodies murdered in the same way as 1926 police reports suggest, is primary among them. Time travel, murder and ghosts are an exciting combination, and the discussion between the police officer Jim Marquez and the sound specialist Rachel Weir piques interest and foreshadows something more than a simple murder enquiry from the very beginning.
The difference here is in the telling. Ghost stories are at their most spooky when told at a remove: a third party stumbles upon the key to the puzzle and the reader/audience find out as the third party do that there is something more than just an old house the deal with. Here we have three stories, all unfolding at once, and there are a number of questions for the audience to work out: who is the girl? what happened in the house? and how is time travel involved?
The sound production is excellent here, painting in sound what would be easily achieved by images in a television drama, but in a less sophisticated way. Creepy young girls sing, there is giggling in empty corridors and the young boy Matthew is terrorised by something which cannot be heard by any of the adults but which we the audience can hear via Gibson’s tape. All in all, the excellent use of sound means that the story is prolonged, all the time heightening the audience’s sense that all is not as it seems. Also, the ending and its lack of sound equally speak volumes as this time it is we the audience who are left in the dark.
In summary, I found this play haunting, yet predictable. Although the telling was original, unfortunately the story was not. The sound engineer who cannot get the mystery out of her head goes back to the house at the end – and while it was a nice touch that she could well be the fifth unidentified female body, I knew what was going to happen to her. A severe case of have-you-not-read-this-story-before, that spoiled what was otherwise a spooky tale and turned it into something of an anti-climax.
I’ve been away from this blog for just over a month now (apologies), and out of the country for just over a week (got back on Monday), so when I returned to work this week I found that there were a lot of new radio plays to listen to on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4Extra (or R7, as it used to be).
I’ve found that listening to radio plays while working is very therapeutic, and I’m considering downloading e-books so I can claim to have ‘read’ the classics while I count things and email things and scan things and deal with enquiries that allow me to listen to something in the background.
Another thing I’ve been meaning to do is mention this,and possibly mention some of those radio plays that I’ve enjoyed – but because I’m lazy the first thing I did was to google reviews. I was very surprised to find only one site that reviewed the plays I’d been listening to (if at all!), but on the plus side it’s a really good site!
has been interesting, but I’ve been lacking the ability to make my own comments.
So what I’m proposing now – now that I’ve just about finished my first year of Library School – is to collect my opinions on these plays I keep on listening to, and work out what I like and what I don’t. This is a selfish project, but I’m hoping that there’s others out there who will find it interesting. Another thing I’d like to do one day is write a radio play, and so I’m pretty sure that much like studying and reading books so as to improve writing them, listening to and thinking about radio plays will help me to work out what on earth I should be doing in future to write a decent one that can be broadcast on Radio 4!
Expect thoughts and review soon! Watch this (previously unoccupied) space!
In the meantime, the reasons I’ve been quiet: essays and holidays!
My boyfriend is a
plant nerd horticulturalist, and so our trip to Holland was filled with bulb fields and horticultural shows and my insistence that if I lived in such a flat place as Holland I would cycle everywhere and it would always be very pretty and isn’t that a good idea – maybe I should move.
We did perhaps slightly too much travelling for a short period of time (I am a lazy soul, after all), but we did see a number of very beautiful things.