Kafka The Musical (Online review)

Kafka The Musical (Online review)

Recently the BBC Sounds app expanded the number of audio dramas it has an offer by a considerable number. There are now over 60 separate pieces available in a grouping called Drama On 3 – presumably to indicate that they were originally broadcast on that station’s Sunday evening slot. There’s an eclectic mix (Greek tragedy via Shakespeare through to new writing) and some big star names (Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, Andrew Scott to name just a few). The one that caught my eye immediately was called Kafka The Musical. And if the title isn’t enough to lure you in, knowing that it stars David Tennant just might.

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Much as Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself transformed into an insect, so a day in its author’s life begins equally bizarrely. His parents appear to announce that Grossman, theatrical impresario of some repute, has bought the rights to Kafka’s life story and plans to turn this into a musical. And because Kafka is deemed to be the best person available to play Kafka then he is going to appear in it – so far, so off kilter. Delighted that his son is at last going to make some money Kafka Senior arranges for his son to have a meeting with the mysterious producer but despite several attempts there is always a reason that he cannot. Instead, he finds himself liaising with Grossman’s wife and the assistant stage manager on the show. The question arises as to whether Grossman even exists and Kafka’s fruitless pursuit begins to echo Josef K’s experience in The Trial. Mixed in with all this are scenes of the writer’s enduring (and perhaps only) passion for Dora, the lost love of his life.

It’s never clear whether all this is really happening or is the result of tortured dreams or some combination of the two. This has the potential to be rather annoying but actually sits easily with Kafka’s published work which takes much the same tack. This is especially so when musical numbers start to invade the narrative – if you’re expecting a full blown musical, then think again. Sometimes these are in the form of numbers from the proposed show within the show – there’s a witty homage to Kander and Ebb with “Strangers”. At other times they are more wistful musings which emerge rather more naturally from “reality” – if that indeed is what it is. The last quarter of the piece takes a melancholy and rueful turn as Kaka succumbs to the tuberculosis which finally killed him and he recalls the traumatic occasion when his father left the young boy out on an exposed balcony all night for the perceived crime of asking for a glass of water.

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David Tennant is wonderful – how couldn’t he be, he’s David Tennant? And even though we can’t see him in this audio production he seems perfectly cast as the author and confused victim of the system. What comes across most strongly is a sense of regret for all the unfinished work, the unfinished relationships and the unfinished life There’s strong work too from Naomi Frederick, Emerald O’Hanrahan and Jessica Raine as the women in Kafka’s life – the latter in an early appearance before fame beckoned. I particularly liked the northern accented Kafka Senior of David Fleeshman which brought back happy memories of playing the same character in Alan Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick a few years ago. Indeed, there are some similarities between the two pieces although Bennett didn’t put in any musical numbers. Murray Gold, on the other hand, is an accomplished and multi BAFTA nominated composer who can write a good melody and manages to combine this with lyrics which are by turns witty and full of an aching longing. The production also benefits from the first class directing of Jeremy Mortimer.

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I’m glad to have found this particular seam of audio drama, especially as there is so much to choose from, and will certainly be dipping into this particular barrel at regular intervals. If they are all as good as Kafka The Musical there are some real treats in store.

Kafka The Musical is available via BBC Sounds – click here

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