RADIO / The tides of the Marches: Georgina Brown reports on an adaptation for radio of Louisa May Alcott's classic Good Wives

Marcy Kahan's introduction to the theatre, at the age of five, was a stage adaptation of Little Women. When the interval curtain fell on Beth's deathbed and the line 'Little Beth is well at last,' the tears began. 'What does that mean?' she sobbed. Her parents tried in vain to shut the child up with ice- cream and chocolate. Later she acted out the book with her older sister, who naturally bagged the best part, Jo March, the hoyden would-be writer. If Marcy couldn't be Jo, there was no way she would play homely Meg, worldly Amy or snivelling Beth. She would be Laurie, the boy from the grand house next door and Jo's best friend. In the Kahan household, The Jo and Laurie Show ran and ran and ran.

It was not the stranglehold that the Marches exercised on Marcy Kahan's imagination, however, nor the fact that she is half-American and born on the Fourth of July, but the idiosyncratically satirical tenor of her writing that made her the ideal choice for dramatising Louisa May Alcott's most famous book and its sequel, Good Wives. Her semi-autobiographical comedy Viva, about a student being viva'd, was described by the Times as 'The most subversive half-hour on radio this year'; her sharp screenplay Antonia and Jane, about a ghastly friendship between two schoolchums, won several awards.

Jo March aside, Kahan's childhood fictional role-models were a little bizarre - Shaw's Henry Higgins and Dickens's caddish Steerforth. But her rigorously unsentimental attitude has stuck, and is neatly summed up in the exit-line 'I must go home and kill off Beth' that became a well-used refrain while she worked on the novel. The tone gives her adaptation a splendidly crisp shell through which the soft centre occasionally oozes.

Alcott's double-bill is in many ways the ultimate family fantasy. While in real life familiarity breeds contempt (never more so than in adolescence), in the fictional lives of the four March daughters, their saintly Marmee and their largely absent Father, familiarity breeds acceptance, tolerance and appreciation. The director, Marilyn Imrie, remembers reading it as a child and being utterly enchanted 'by a family that got on so well, but could behave badly and yet everything could be all right and you can be forgiven. In adolescence that is a terribly important thing to know'.

Kahan is the first to admit that to more sophisticated adult ears, the goody-goodiness can cloy. 'But if you patronise the book and feel superior to the characters and their innocence and wholesome desire to be good and do good and send it up, you completely kill it,' she insists. Imrie refuses to apologise for the sentimentality. 'You must look sentiment in the eye. Literature is full of death scenes and grief for a love that cannot be. We reach for it because in it we find our own catharsis. You need to confront that nightmare of your child dying. It's easier to read than dramatise, which is why writers can cop out and move it offstage.'

When Little Women was broadcast last year, some listeners were choked by the syrup, but more were choked by the huge lump in their throats. Good Wives is a glorious weep a minute - Marmee's race to Father's bedside, Jo's rejection of Laurie, Beth's walk by the sea-shore when she says she will be homesick for Jo even in heaven, Jo's passion for the outlandish professor, Beth's last breath. But to prevent the listener drowning in emotion, Kahan throws out various lifebelts. First, the necessary compression into six 30-minute episodes enabled her to cut out some of the sententious and self-righteous numbers.

Next, balance and tension. 'I decided against Jo as narrator because that would be like having a concerto with Jo as a soloist and the others an orchestra. I wanted it to work as a quartet,' she explains. While Little Women runs from Christmas without Father to Christmas with Father and is for the most part told in dramatised scenes through dialogue, Good Wives has a more complex narrative that follows each of the girls' journeys, real or metaphorical, away from the parental home. In particular the Jo / Laurie relationship sustains the tension beyond each self-contained chapter.

She also plays up the humour, even inventing a deathbed scene for crabby Aunt March as a comic counterpoint to Beth's death. 'It's fantastically refreshing to have a character saying 'I'm dying, I know I'm dying and if the doctor says any different then he's an imbecile,' as Aunt March does ,' says Kahan. 'Then she actually tells Jo that she's always admired her and bequeaths to her her estate Plumfield. I always felt that was missing from the book.'

The rest depends on a cast prepared to pull all the stops out. Jemma Redgrave (poised and sensitive as Meg) and Martin Jarvis (unrecognisable as the slobbering, intense Professor) are the only English actors in an impressive line-up of Americans (Gayle Hunnicut makes a warm, wise Marmee; Marcus d'Amico a puppyish, glamorous Laurie). 'I did it partly because as a Scot I can't bear hearing people who aren't Scottish trying to speak like one,' says Imrie. 'But also because I wanted to give Alcott back to the Americans - it's their book, their culture. All that 'family values' and 'I love you Mom' stuff Americans are so keen on, it was Alcott who kicked it off.'

'Good Wives' begins Thursday, 10am, Radio 4 FM

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