Pixie Juice

45 min. BBC Radio production from 2014 written by Ed Harris that’s a kind of Twilight Zone-ish tale and a quirky mix of comedy and drama, kitchen sink realism, fantasy, and horror.

A down-on-her-luck working class London tattoo artist (Indira Varma), looking after her dad (who’s losing his sight) one day discovers strange fairy/pixy creatures and after an accident with one, discovers their blood can be used in ink to create magical tattoos. A snappy-pace and the mix of elements, where it can be funny, serious, and creepy all at once, is part of what holds your attention (given, as mentioned, in a way it’s a pretty standard type fantasy tale). Good dialogue and good performances, too — especially Varma.

Wingfield

The hugely successful Wingfield plays (beginning with Letters from Wingfield Farm and numbering four or five sequels) tell the story of a big city stock broker, Walt Wingfield, who decides to chuck the fast lane and buy a small town farm — relating his adventures (and misadventures) in letters written to the local paper. Written by Dan Needles, they’re all one-man shows starring Rod Beattie.

Very funny comedies, yet with an underlining drama. Sure, they aren’t much more than sitcoms — but smart, high quality sitcoms, not relying on cheap jokes for the most part. The town’s folk aren’t bumpkins, and there’s a good natured charm to Walt’s clumsy efforts to adjust to farm life (an underlining theme is that Walt is often more nostalgic for — and protective of — the rural life than his neighbours who are born to it!)

A strength of the plays is Beattie’s multi-faceted performance, evoking a cast of characters who are consistent (yet also capable of growth) throughout the plays. Many of the plays have been recorded as audio productions and, in that format, his performance can be even more remarkable, as you wouldn’t realize it’s not a full cast acting together (well, except when he does the women characters).

Funny, charming…and definitely a modern classic of Canadiana.

The Ghost Train

90 minute BBC radio adaptation from 2008 of Arnold Ridley’s vintage 1923 stage play that mixes mystery, supernatural, and comedy with a story of passengers aboard a train who get marooned at a desolate train station for the night…where local history warns of a mysterious ghost train.

It’s a decent production, lively, and well acted (in a slightly fruity, OTT way) though some of the voices are hard to distinguish from each other. But the play itself is…problematic. For one thing, we’re probably half way into it before we even get to the spooky stuff (the first half more just introducing the passengers on the train) and, though it might have been more surprising when first written, nowadays kind of comes across as a predictable Scooby Do episode — as such, doesn’t quite succeed as being too scary/spooky (and even though it’s light-hearted…isn’t that funny). Still, an agreeable enough way to kill 90 minutes.

Ring for Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s comic/satire stories of the British upper classes, as personified by oblivious Bernie Wooster and his smarter, but reserved, butler Jeeves, have seen a few audio/radio versions (as well as TV). The novel Ring for Jeeves (itself I believe based on a play, Come On, Jeeves) was adapted into 2 one-hour episodes for BBC Radio in 2014. It’s a little atypical in that Jeeves has been lent out to another oblivious gentleman, Bill, so it’s not about Wooster — the only Jeeves story not involving Wooster (though Bill is essentially the same character type, so perhaps the switch was to allow more plot freedom since the status quo doesn’t have to be maintained by the end of the story).

It’s a manor house comedy full of exaggeratedly typical British gentry (tally ho!) living on the cusp of the end of the Age of Aristocracy (here the 1950s) as they are having to get real jobs and deal with dwindling fortunes. Bill is in the process of trying to sell his estate (possibly to a wealthy American woman) while also dealing with the misadventures resulting from an ill-fated foray into being a racing bookie (after he ends up owing more money to a winner than he actually has). And there is a bit of a “play” vibe to it, as most of the action takes place on the estate over just a few days.

Perhaps the curious thing about it is that some of the actors are often associated more with drama, yet the story itself is pure light-hearted farce. But that results in a mixed effect. On one hand, you could argue the characters and dialogue demand a little more camp and OTT…on the other hand, maybe it lends the characters and situations a little more grounding, so that the whole doesn’t float away on a cloud of total frivolity. By that I don’t mean that the actors aren’t playing it as comedy — they are! — it’s just the characters can still seem a bit like, well, people, too. As such, maybe not as funny as it could be, but it’s maybe more slyly amusing and engaging than you might expect it to be. And where you have to pay attention to the dialogue to get the jokes.

Martin Jarvis stars as Jeeves and Jamie Bamber as Bill, with Rufus Sewell, Joanne Whaley, and American actress Glenne Headly in the cast. It’s a good cast, with Sewell in particular delightfully atypical as an aging, oblivious, aristocrat. Of course, I can’t say I’m a devoted fan of the Wodehouse/Jeeves stories in general, but I did enjoy this as a kind of breezy, amusing romp.

Mizlansky / Zilinsky

L.A. Theatre Works audio adaptation of the play by John Robin Baitz, a satire of Hollywood’s fringe dwellers, also rans, and tax shelter schemes. It involves a fading movie mogul who’s trying to market Bible stories on audio, but has cooked the books in the process.

Enjoyable enough comedy and satire (with a darker bite, dealing with anti-Semitism — most of the characters are Jews) though can be one of those plays which is a tad unsatisfying by the end. Not gut busting hilarious, yet not completely satisfying emotionally (since Mizlansky is an anti-hero) or conceptually (it’s not like it’s some grand house of cards scheme). Even the anti-Semitism can feel a bit tacked on toward the end simply to add gravitas. And I’m sometimes a bit ambivalent about stories that, on one hand, want to tackle prejudice and anti-Semitism — even as many of the Jewish characters are portrayed as con artists and avaricious. Baitz (who I assume is Jewish) presumably wants to satirize all sides, but it does seem to send mixed impressions.

Still, that aside, in short this is like a dozen better-than-average but not quite great plays and is certainly worth a listen. Though — dagnabit! — as a sci-fi fan, I’m not sure I appreciate the digs at science fiction (one character is an actor who is basically supposed to have hit bottom because he’s contemplating a role in a SF series). Ah, well…

The “name” cast of familiar voices is definitely an appeal, although with a certain mix of styles. Nathan Lane (as the scheming Mizlansky) is loud and more farcical (and Rob Morrow’s gay assistant is a bit broad) while Richard Masur and Paul Sand (as Zilinsky) play it more grounded and subtle, as do Grant Shaud and Robert Walden. Kurtwood Smith is also in the cast (and maybe a bit broader, too). All are good but, as I say, maybe coming at it from different angles. (Funnily, I came across a review of a stage production of this with some of the same actors — but cast in different parts!)

Aberystwyth Noir: It Ain’t Over till the Bearded Lady Sings

45 min. BBC Radio play from 2013 written by Malcolm Pryce using the characters and milieu from his series of humorous detective novels. It’s a comic private eye mystery set in a kind off-kilter alternate reality of the Welsh tourist town of Aberystwyth, involving the drive by, gangland murder of a local carnival owner, with suspects ranging from the misfit entertainers to the local gangsters — The Druids (who’ve changed a lot since the days of Stonehenge).

The hero is Louie Knight (Phylip Harries) a crusty private eye who finds himself joined by a spunky young girl sidekick, Calamity Jane (Catrin Stewart) — who’s been taking correspondence courses in being a detective.

The joke is partly taking the traditional, hardboiled American private eye story and transplanting it to the (supposedly) incongruous and innocuous setting of Aberystwyth, with the folksy Welsh accents, and where the local watering hole isn’t a sleazy bar — but an ice cream shop! Except it is a noir-ish Aberystwyth, with crime lords and murder around the corners. Admittedly, one could see the joke being a bit patronizing (I’m sure Wales is just as capable of being a setting for a serious private eye tale as anywhere else) but nonetheless works as a quirky spoof of the genre, with engaging characters/actors (particularly Stewart whose character might not even be in the novels), witty dialogue, and eccentric twists, while wryly having fun with the conventions of the genres (voiceover narration using overwrought metaphors).

An enjoyable, and oddly atmospheric, romp, set in this parallel universe Wales.

Asha’s World

45 min. BBC Radio comedy (or maybe light drama) from 2011 by Bettina Gracias. Archie Panjabi plays Asha, a young Anglo-India woman whose traditionalist Indian mother sets her up on a blind date. Not wanting to go, Asha lets her man-hungry best friend go in her stead, pretending to be her. Confusion and complications ensue because of the switched identities…especially when Asha actually does start to get interested in the guy.

Enjoyable enough, with good performances from Panjabi and the rest. But it can feel a bit like, well, just a sitcom — and a mildly amusing one more than a knee slapping hilarious one. The fact that the play essentially comes down seeming in favour of arranged marriages (in that Asha does end up liking the guy) can be seen as a cultural statement, or simply a quirky narrative choice (though in this kind of story, honestly, you can kind of guess it’s going to go that way).