RADIO / Sher, master of venom, sheds a skin

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'COLD. Cold. Cold.' The slow repetition of the word, drained of all feeling save a frozen shudder, is what will remain longest from Peter Flannery's play Singer (R4). The voice - harsh but withered - was Antony Sher's, recreating his stage role of Pyotr Zinger, who travels from the edge of death in the frozen hell of Auschwitz to reincarnation as Peter Singer, and then imposes a kind of hell on the homeless of west London. Like Peter Rachman (the obvious model), Singer finds acceptance by the English harder than entry into their language: 'Singerism: extortion or exploitation by landlords of tenants of dilipidated property.'

In Michael Fox's production, a fine but flawed stage play became something close to great radio. With delicate use of sound effects (the death-rattle of a train into Auschwitz Central, recalled years later) and music (Ilona Sekacz's haunting score), form was given to what might have been a shapeless pageant. The geographical scope of the play - Auschwitz to Notting Hill - lends itself to radio, as does its examination of memory; but it could have fallen apart in less capable hands.

And then there was the whirling, centripetal force of Antony Sher's performance. Those who found more self- advertisement than insight in Sher's Richard III may dismiss this turn as caricature, but it would be hard to deny its power. With a voice like sandpaper and a laugh like dirty water glugging down the bath, he hatched his schemes, cajoling or seducing any opposition. Malcolm Storry as Manik, brain-damaged at Auschwitz through repeated beatings, and Mick Ford as Stefan, who seeks to memorialise in art what Singer must obliterate through crime, gave wonderful support.

In its second part, 'The Journey Back', (the play was broadcast on two successive evenings), the plot starts to take improbable twists: Singer returns, eight years after his supposed suicide, to stalk out the Ukrainian-Polish guard who brutalised him in the camp; he then undergoes a moral volte-face, becoming a saviour to London down-and- outs, earning the sobriquet St Peter of the South Bank; but, with the rise of Thatcher, he begins to doubt the worth of his worthiness.

As the moral gives way to the political, the exposition becomes more crude - Tory-bashing replacing soul-searching. But the great questions of the play keep on being refined. Is Singer evil? And if so, was he born tainted or was his soul, as he argues at one point, destroyed at Auschwitz? Are we one person throughout our lives, or do we shed characters like skins? These are not the sort of questions you expect answers to, but they were provokingly put in an enthralling three hours of radio. The debate over whether the Holocaust is a fit subject for art didn't seem relevant.