Review: Radio controlled

Talk of the City Swan Theatre, Stratford
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Talk of the City

Swan Theatre, Stratford

David Hare's TV play, Licking Hitler homed in a "black propaganda" unit in the Second World War whose job was to broadcast fabricated and destabilising news reports to Nazi Germany from a remote English country house. The setting was supposed to be emblematic of a nation betraying its ideals, a source of the post-war lot.

You can lie, of course, by suppressing the truth as well as by false suggestions. In his new stage play, , Stephen Poliakoff, likewise raises the question of broadcasting and its moral obligations, only here the focus is on a (then) monopoly institution, BBC Radio, two years before War broke out. Was its massed audience mislead by a "conspiracy of silence" about the plight of the Jews in Germany and by an undue guardedness in the BBC reports on the storm gathering in Europe?

Poliakoff's play dramatises the struggle between the cautious and complacent institutional mentality (as characterised by the bow tied mandarin Head of the Spoken Word who fends off protests with the lofty "the fact is the Jewish people are prone to exaggeration") and maverick idealism, embodied pretty clangingly in Angus Wright's Clive, a young upper-class producer who yearns to brings the facts of Jewish suffering alive for English listeners.

Peopled by showgirls glitzily dolled up for an unseeing audience and by news readers in white tie and tails, the physically cockeyed, restrictively pre-scripted world of radio in this era is entertainingly contrasted, in Poliakoff's Swan with the chaotic liberties you could take - because no one was looking - on primitive TV. But Robbie (David Westhead) compere of a popular radio variety programme who possesses a talent for improvisation and a subversive streak, might be the medium through which Clive can convey his message in an unprecedented and risky collision between light Entertainment and Talks.

is, like all Poliakoff's work, alive with interesting ideas and speculation. However, I found it, for the most part unconvincing either as drama or as an attempt to enter into the moral difficulties of the period. The motivations of the main contenders are very thinly evoked. Initially reluctant to co-operate, the bisexual Robbie (all pacing, self absorbed showman's energy in Westhead's performance) is politicised with unwonted rapidity a by a sketchy love affair with a visiting German Jew.

From this latter, he gets the idea of inventing a new comic radio persona, Mr Curioso, an Italian detective who achieves enormous popularity with his foreigners prospective on secretive English life. But whenever Robbie departs from his script and heads off into free floating dangerous reverence the play itself seems to become unmoored from reality. Poliakoff needs us to believe that Robbie acquires a mass audience and potentially huge power so that he can show him going too far into self promoting relevance and jeopardising his chances of using his position to speak on behalf of the Jews. But it feels incredible that the BBC would have tolerated his unpredictability long enough for him to have reached that point.

The irksome venerability of the BBC, achieved in such a short time, comes through clearer than its vulnerability to government pressure particularly in the area of foreign affairs coverage. There's sometimes the suspicion that people are being judged here for not acting in 1937 in the light of our knowledge of the fully developed horror. And it is doubtful that a better informed public - good though that would have been - would have helped to prevent the War.

Paul Taylor

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