Radio: Another first night for Twelfth Night

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHAT IF Elizabeth I had attended the first performance of Twelfth Night? What if she was so paranoid about the playwright - after his Richard II had apparently provoked the Essex rebellion - that she arrived in disguise, felt faint and ordered the windows to be opened? What if all the candles had blown out and the play was performed in the dark?

It would have been like doing it on the radio. For the 75th anniversary of the first broadcast drama, David Pownall imagined just that. He wrought a play to rival Shakespeare's for wit, sinuous ingenuity and labyrinthine plotting. Produced with flair by Martin Jenkins, it had action which from that tense, hypothetical first performance to Reith's equally anxious preparation for his own production of the same play - and back again. An Epiphanous Use of the Microphone (R4) it certainly was, and an exuberant celebration of the medium.

In other hands such complexity could have become bouillabaisse, but Pownall is a grand master of the radio play. He introduced further baroque variations, like the idea that Burbage's vanity contributed to the Queen's neurotic identification of Malvolio with Essex, or that it was Reith's wife who sleepily solved his problem about how, aurally, to present cross-gartering - and he parodied Francis Bacon's famous sentence structure with a wonderfully prophetic speech: "Do we need the stage, Lord Cecil? Costumes disappoint, scenery is silly, most actors are ugly. We'd be less annoyed with the theatre if all plays were performed in the dark." In other words, as the magnificently scary Anna Massey (playing Elizabeth) put it: "You have proved to us that the voice is the most potent part."

After all that, the anniversary production of Twelfth Night (R3) was a touch disappointing. Fog-horns, clunking car-doors, and most of the actors sounding like Noel Coward suggested an early-20th-century setting. Vocal caricature is unnecessary, but very similar voices complicate the unravelling of an already tortuous plot. When carousing, the three fruity revellers sang their catch to the tune of "Frere Jacques", but most of the music was written by Neil Brand and played on ukelele and honky-tonk piano. Nicky Henson's suave Feste was at his best in a pastiche Victorian ballad version of "Come away, death" and Josette Simon made a moving Olivia. Her performance reminded me of another Pownall line: "Radio can get into the heart, which is where Twelfth Night takes place."

Drama has come a long way since Reith. One of James Boyle's better ideas has been to provide a regular weekday slot for it at 2.15 every afternoon on Radio 4. But the timing is the only predictable feature of these plays. On Friday Leslie Ash overacted her socks (and everything else) off in a bit of frivolous nonsense called Confession of a Love Addict (R4). It was supposed to be about a sleaze reporter turned tough agony aunt who gets soppy and becomes addicted to lurve, pouncing on every half- indecent man she spies. In fact, Eve is a nymphomaniac impure and simple, and it's hard to imagine the newspaper that could afford a contributor like her.

Vanessa Rosenthal's Jerusalem North West (R4) made better use of the medium. It was about an old widow who converted to Judaism to marry her man and is now dying in a Jewish retirement home. This one really was about love. When Maggie is losing consciousness, her bossy cousin's voice fades out and her dead husband's replaces it, loud, clear and comforting: goose- pimple radio.

But the most immediate play this week was David Johnstone's Hambone's Day (R4). Kate Rowland, the redoubtable Head of Drama, produced Hambone's Day on Thursday, virtually live, as it was transmitted, and long before the results of the referendum were known. It centred on Paul, a bright, 10-year-old Belfast boy (Dean Pritchard) who is befriended by Frank (Gerard McSorley). They discuss the rows provoked at home by the Good Friday Agreement. Paul's father doesn't trust it, his mother desperately wants to: they are, says Paul, "at it, hammer and tongues".

Frank takes him up to Belfast Castle, so he can see how close together are the Shankill and the Falls Roads. It is Ascension Day, and Paul thinks Jesus must be fed up with it all and gone home, so. Interspersed with local jokes (why are the police called the police? Because they are, you see) and real news bulletins, the play left a powerful impression of people struggling to be ordinary, longing desperately for a peaceful future, and shuddering at the random violence of what they fervently hope is the past.

Serious reporting of the run-up to the referendum included an excellent edition of Any Questions (R4) last weekend, in which Jonathan Dimbleby displayed detailed knowledge of the Agreement and an impressive ability to discern and confound faulty logic. Woman's Hour (R4) broadcast a moving interview with three women bereaved by terrorism, each taking a different but equally impassioned line. One, Sandra Peacock, appeared again on Today (R4), repeating her view that released gangsters and racketeers would scarcely be taking Job Seekers' Allowance. A witness on The Moral Maze (R4) produced the encouraging contrary statistic that recidivism was running at only 1 per cent but, alas, all the loathsome David Starkey could say to her was: "I've heard guff and nothing but guff from you!" Starkey's ego is inflated way beyond his worth. Why is he still broadcasting?

Finally, there is good news about the improved R4 comedy slot. Goodness Gracious Me is back from the telly and sharp as ever. (Did you know that the Royal Family is Indian? Well, they all have arranged marriages, live under the same roof and work for the family firm, don't they?) The Cheese Shop Presents ... too, has funny moments and may well ripen, but The Alan Davies Show is plain brilliant. Of this week's plotlines, my favourite was Kate's. An infant teacher, she inadvertently sells her class's paintings to a gallery as naive masterpieces but unfortunately the headmaster repossesses them. Raiding his study, she uncovers his shameful secrets: "150 Ways to Make Small Children Feel Smaller" and a compilation tape, "Now, That's What I Call Assembly (vol 1)".