A LEAP IN THE DARK

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Ron Hutchinson, adapted from the radio play by Ron Hutchinson and Alisa Taylor
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Difficult to believe but it’s 100 years since the BBC broadcast the UK’s first radio play. To mark the occasion the New Vic asked Ron Hutchinson to adapt A Leap in the Dark, commissioned in 2022 by BBC Radio 4, for the stage.

So, what might the audience expect – a set resembling a radio studio on which men in black ties and women in cocktail dresses read from a script while a foley artist produced sound effects?

Well, that’s not quite what you get. The pre-show publicity says the production “charts the (almost) true story of how radio plays came into being”.

Robert Pickavance, Suzanne Ahmet and Ben Norris. Above: Andrew Pollard and Ben Norris [images: Andrew Billington]

Only snippets of A Comedy of Danger, the first play to be heard on the wireless, have survived. So Hutchinson, who worked on the adaptation with his wife Alisa Taylor, has taken a few liberties as he imagines what might have happened when the BBC’s drama department was first set up. What we get is a wacky, often hilarious, sideways look at the serendipitous success of a work that some people genuinely wanted to fail.

A Leap in the Dark tells the extraordinary tale of how the head of the newly formed drama department Cecil Maud believed a play made specially for the wireless could be just the thing to entertain listeners. It would also popularise the newly formed British Broadcasting Company, as it was then known.

Maud, a superbly cast Perry Moore, wants to bring in theatre genius Nigel Playfair to direct the first drama. Playfair, dexterously played by Andrew Pollard, isn’t keen on putting his reputation on the line but takes the job so that Noël Coward doesn’t get it.

Playfair turns to subversive writer Richard Hughes, vibrantly played by Ben Norris, to come up with a script. With the deadline approaching, Hughes delivers a strange piece about trapped miners in a dark pit. Like listeners to the wireless, the miners can see nothing.

Perry Moore (Cedric Maud) and Alyce Liburd (Grace Gumby)

Most of the second half of A Leap in the Dark features the “live” transmission of the radio play. Maud’s clerical/creative assistant Grace Gumby, effervescently portrayed by Alyce Liburd, makes changes to the script and has to finish it as the programme is going out.

That leads to uproar as the cast struggle to remain quiet when they are not speaking their lines. They also leave gaps in the dialogue as they move away from the microphone to turn over a page.

But the most side-splitting cameos involve cleaner Mrs Stanley, expertly played by Angela Bain, who is thrust into the limelight as she takes charge of sound effects. It’s amazing how potatoes rolling around the stage can sound like a roof caving in and the crunch of celery can signify a cord splitting.

Suzanne Ahmet who takes the role of Playfair’s extrovert wife May shines as she becomes an integral part of the pit drama.

Half of the eight-strong cast play several roles, with Angela Bain also excelling as the down-to-earth Lady Hartley who wants the BBC to broadcast something decent so that her company can sell more wireless sets.

Madeleine Leslay is convincing as Lady Stanley’s intellectually challenged daughter Rita and Robert Pickavance stands out especially as the drunken actor who is a bit clueless about how radio works.

Thanks to director Caroline Wilkes, A Leap in the Dark rattles along at a cracking pace which rarely dips. It may not be exactly how a play first came to be heard on the wireless – but a truer representation wouldn’t be as funny or as uplifting.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website

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