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But First This: A Musical Homage to Radio 4 at The Watermill West Berkshire Playhouse

Published by: Clare Brotherwood on 28th Oct 2014 | View all blogs by Clare Brotherwood

But First This - Image.jpg

I was so relieved to hear the Radio 4 pips this morning because, in radio announcer Kathy Clugston’s scintillating new musical, Selina Badminton, the new controller of Britain’s flagship station, reduces their number, as well as axing Woman’s Hour.

Believe me, the Today programme will never be the same again as Kathy takes us behind the scenes in a somewhat fictionalised studio setting where John Humphrys, forever looking pleased with himself, starts the first of a few cheeky numbers by singing the weather forecast, news reader Anna complains about people with long names, while kindly, dishevelled Jim Naughtie moans the demise of Woman’s Hour before going off to hunt down the missing Greenwich Time Signal pips.

You don’t have to be a Radio 4 aficionado to enjoy this production. Anyone who appreciates a cleverly written and very funny script, superbly acted by a versatile and charismatic cast, will be hugely entertained, but knowing the in jokes and the programmes whose titles pepper the dialogue makes it even more enjoyable. The audience at last night’s press night were obviously fans, becoming almost part of the show.

The evening didn’t start well. When I looked down onto the huge car park which was the M4 and knew I had to endure a 70-mile round trip to the theatre, I thought that even a musical based on my constant daytime companion couldn’t be worth the hassle.

It was!

From start to finish I was often aware of how broadly I was smiling, when I wasn’t whooping and laughing out (very) loudly. This is the funniest play I have seen since The Play That Goes Wrong, which I saw long before it went into the West End - where this production certainly belongs.

As Selina, Louise Plowright has huge presence, seeming almost like Cruella Deville as she relishes in her evil character. She is every bit as scary as the head of the pronunciation department; this time appearing like a black coated Dracula. How she must enjoy playing those parts.
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As John Humphrys, Michael Fenton Stevens also looks as if he is having a ball – unlike the real John Humphrys! And yet he manages to capture him so well that I had to tell myself he wasn’t the real thing.
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Having met Jim Naughtie I am able to confirm that Jonathan Dryden Taylor’s genial portrayal too, is spot on, while Helena Blackman as the news reader and Neil Ditt as the weather forecaster provide strong support and, like the rest of the cast, show their versatility when playing countless other characters. There are also off-stage cameo roles played by announcer Alice Arnold and Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills, whose original Edinburgh Festival show gave Kathy the idea for But First This.

Among those who appear on Radio 4 is Libby Purves, who happened to be in the audience last night, reviewing for her website theatrecat.com. She too is mentioned in the show, along with ‘appearances’ from Nicholas Parsons, Kirsty Young and Stephen Fry, and was delighted about it. She told me the announcers have such a great sense of humour but always have to keep it hidden, never showing it in their voices, so not only is But First This is celebration of Radio 4 but an explosion of hidden humour.

There are so many highlights: the three men singing how Woman’s Hour will make you one hell of a man; scenes from The Archers spoken as if by characters from Tennessee Williams’ novels, while concerns over Jim’s death as he rows in a storm from Lundy (Kirsty Young’s desert island) across the Bristol Channel looking for the missing pips reduced me to tears, only to find myself laughing again as the others tell Jim: ‘We thought you were dead!’ His reply: ‘Really? In a comedy?’

I hope Radio 4 never dies, and that But First This also has a long and happy life!

But First This: A Musical Homage to Radio 4 continues at The Watermill West Berkshire Playhouse until November 8.

Box office: 01635 46044 www.watermill.org.uk

Comments

1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 3 years ago
    Cracking review, Clare. This sounds like great fun!
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