Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Adaptation For Radio Loses What Matters

Radio Arts Feature

It Ain’t Over Till the Bearded Lady Sings , BBC Cymru Wales & iPlayer , May 20, 2013
Radio Arts Feature by It Ain’t Over Till the Bearded Lady Sings The best of radio drama lingers on. Somewhere in the archive there is a play about barrack life for the wives of soldiers. In sympathy, insight and drama there is not a piece on its subject to surpass it. Also in the archive is a piece of Welsh drama, a memorably madcap tale set in Tremadoc. It involved a Romantic poet and a secret agent with the building of the Cob in the background. Another poignant and witty two-hander dealt with the railway to South Wales. Its title came from the time difference between Paddington and Cardiff, before synchronised timetables. In this case I remembered the author and was astonished to find that “Just a Matter of Time” by Alan Plater was broadcast as far back as 1999.

The most spirited part of Wales’ theatre conversation is invariably NTW’s Writers Group. The Price-ian stance, that writing for theatre is hard-acquired craft of its own kind, is set against a view that performance is one outlet for generic writerly skills. There are principles in art but few rules. The record is plain; the novelists who have stretched successfully to drama are few. But then Owen Sheers’ role in “the Two Worlds of Charlie F” was part of a historic piece of theatre. “It Ain’t Over Till the Bearded Lady Sings”, the appearance on radio of Aberystwyth private eye Louie Knight, confirms the rule rather than the exception.

An author does not get six novels published by Bloomsbury without being in possession of a distinctive voice. If the series has a transatlantic cousin it would be the dystopian Florida of Carl Hiaasen, equally untranslatable into other forms. The books work, and they work for reasons that the radio adaptation omits. An opening paragraph from a book has a character with trousers held up with string and a tie stained with dung “grown into the flesh of his neck the way wire sometimes cuts into the bark of trees.” Maybe it is the afternoon slot, but the writing has been stripped of its black comedy.

The narrator’s radio voice has a heavier, slower timbre than the spark of the Louie Knight on the page. There is a teasing skill to the original. Looking across to Plas Tan-y-Bwlch the narrator says it has been a billet for “soldiers, lunatics, military brass, gentry, typhoid sufferers, consumptives, and finally, when all other uses had been exhausted”- this is the sureness of touch- “students.”

The error in the radio writing is that it wants to be nice. There is a shadow of “Under Milk Wood” a-lingering, but the voice has been lost. Open a book page at random and out jumps an exchange like “I’m usually pretty good with faces.”/ “You mean rearranging them.” Take out the darkness and the listener is left with quaint eccentricity. The bona fide Louie can be mean. “Either you start co-operating” he is likely to say “or I play crazy golf with your head.” Louie is more Mike Hammer than Philip Marlowe. And this has gone.

The script gets it right on occasion with “the human blockhead who hammers nails up his nose for entertainment” and “a room cooler than a hangman's smile.” But there is a tonal void, that makes the sound effects, rain, seagulls, waves, sound exaggerated. A ventriloquist’s voice is unadulterated Neddy Seagoon. The last third sags.

Hamartia is a phrase from the Greek, often misunderstood, from archery. It means missing the mark and that is what has happened here. It's taken the off-beatness but not the rest. Pieces of Welsh culture are making their mark on Britain. Art with bite is being prepared for Edinburgh 2013. This programme was networked across Britain. Sweet Mrs Jones and her friend Mrs Tonypandy, this was just stuff for an overcast Wednesday afternoon.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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