One of the positives to come out of the pandemic in the theatre world is the joining of forces to make a production happen online. When The Picture Of Dorian Gray premiered back in April it was revealed that no less than five regional theatres in Cirencester, Huddersfield, Ipswich, Oxford and Clwyd had collaborated to bring the content to life and were able to reap the rewards of combined national, and international, exposure. In a similar way a recently released audio drama has engaged with this new spirit of co-operation.
Humane is a six part series of podcasts each of which has been “hosted” by venues the Pleasance, Omnibus and Arcola Theatres in London and Theatre Deli in Sheffield. A fifth is hosted by the play’s production company True Name Productions and the last by the organisation Compassion In World Farming. If this last seems a slightly curious addition to the roster it is easily explained by the subject matter of the drama which looks at a real life campaign to stop live animal exports back in the mid-90s. The UK’s major ferry services had introduced a ban on such exports and, therefore, effectively shut down trade at the main ports. Exporters turned their attention to more minor places around the country such as Shoreham in Sussex and Brightlingsea in Essex. The latter, essentially a suburb of Colchester, is the setting for this tale of activism carried out not by professional protesters but by the local townsfolk who successfully challenged the iniquitous conditions in which sheep, cattle and so forth were being sent to the Continent for slaughter.
Polly Creed’s script starts with the sudden death of one of the protestors towards the end of the campaign. The circumstances are not fully explored at this stage but sufficient questions are raised to make it an arresting enough way to begin the tale. After this introductory section we are spooled back to the start of the story and how the protests came about and it is a long while before the death gets re-examined and some context given. In the meantime the play concentrates on a pair of the leading lights of the protest, Alice and Linda. Although nominally separated by age and ethnicity they are united in their condemnation of animal cruelty and form a distinct bond as they lead the townspeople forward to ultimate victory; it’s all very reminiscent of the structure of Calendar Girls. They are also both mothers and having various problems to deal with. One has a non-communicative teenage son and the other has a baby which won’t stop crying and is having to live with her in-laws while her partner is on a tour of duty abroad with the army. As the series progresses these side issues start to dominate which is not to say that they are unimportant but they do begin to distract from the main thrust of the narrative – one episode is almost entirely given over to the sudden disappearance of teenager Michael.
And there’s one more surprise on the horizon. The story eventually catches up with itself and returns to the circumstances of Ralph’s untimely death which doesn’t appear nearly as sinister as might have been expected from what was heard in episode one. There’s a very maudlin speech from his widow Beryl which might have been lifted straight out of a soap opera and revelations after the event lead to a break in the bond between the two main characters. An interesting and timely twist but it seemed shoehorned in rather than an integral part of the main narrative and perhaps designed to give a final boost to proceedings which could not be found in Ralph’s demise. Or if it was to be a theme maybe it should have been highlighted rather more forcefully at an earlier stage. It is unclear whether any of these characters exist(ed) in reality are they all products of Creed’s imagination so I’m not sure whether real events are being portrayed or not.
The play is directed by Imy Wyatt Corner in the best traditions of audio drama and is easily something which would sit neatly in Radio 4’s portfolio; I could also readily see it being made into a TV film. The leading actors, Marcia Lecky (Alice) and Francesca Isherwood (Linda) are good value and provide an interesting pairing with dialogue which sparks nicely when they are together. They are ably backed by a small company playing all the other roles. The all-important sound design is from David Roocroft who conjures up a fine sense of time and place. Listening in the garden on the hottest day of the year (as I did) was a nice treat though I think there is some useful trimming and rearranging which could take place if it ever makes it onto our screens as an important reminder of the potential power of focused communal action.
Humane is available as a six part podcast on Acast – click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)