Present (row-by-row, left-to-right from top): Zara Tomkinson; Colin Ellwood; Sakuntala Ramanee; Rob Pomfret; Jamie Newall; Adam Tyler; Marta Kielkovicz; Hemi Yeroham; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher; Lewis Hart, Susan Raasay; John Chancer; Eugenia Caruso; Emmanuela Lia
With our current Covid-provoked social restrictions very much in mind, yesterday’s reading session (8th May) visited another ‘lockdown’ era, one in which the ‘virus’ was very deliberately brewed in illicit stills and with half a nation tacitly or actively engaged in its transmission and the consequent subverting of govt. ‘advice’. And great to have a nice mix of regular and new members in attendance.
A visit to prohibition-era America, then, seen from a very fresh perspective in John Chancer’s new radio script tracing the life and exploits of his great aunt (?) Vi, as she endeavoured to escape the dullness of 1920s rural South Dakota for a life of bootlegging excitement in company with the charismatic and hugely capable ex-war-hero Verne. Wonderfully spare, idiomatic dialogue and a beautifully immediate sense of the social fabric and chime of an extraordinary ‘moment’, seen free from the ‘peeling lacquer’ of the usual period gangster-noir clichés. Over the course of the afternoon we discovered a richly-evoked community on - and beyond - the edges of the law, but not so far beyond as to seem unreal; a life in the suburbs of the criminal underworld that was very much a variation on ‘legit’ domesticity rather than its colourful but old-movie-inflected opposite. And at the drama’s heart, a very grown-up, loving story of settled partnership between a man in many ways loyal, principled, reliable and talented, and a woman who was in love both with him and with the illicit excitement he trafficked along with the booze. Vi’s gradual transition from small-town skittishness to a settled work-a-day ambiance of career crime; her nemesis at the hands of the FBI and her subsequent alcoholic death as the addled and incapable concierge of a rural hotel at the hands of her consolational (but far from consoling) third husband, were all intricately and compellingly mapped as a series of very plausible and beautifully-implied, incremental micro-choices and acquiescences on Vi’s part, each involving a moth-like orientation towards light and life. Very effective also were the contrasting portrayals of Verne’s dodgy coterie of criminal associates and of Vi’s wider 'civilian' family back in the rural Midwest. The latter were presented as being very aware, in a vague ask-no-questions sort-of way, that she and Verne were involved in something majorly nefarious, but seeing as they liked and admired the couple they discretely offered them support and an occasional bolthole, while also benefitting from the compensatory largesse Verne and Vi were able, intermittently, to provide. All of this was realised in the script by means of a deft, allusive, take-no-hostages narrative tilt and with a commendable absence of moral censoriousness. Perhaps a few unsettling bumps resulting mainly from the script’s ambitious attempt to integrate an early account of then-teenage Vi’s first marriage to the hot-blooded but limited Stanley, who father of her long-suffering daughter Betty, but nothing that couldn’t be steadied, perhaps by the development of the Stanley episode into a slightly more expansive short ‘first act’ (which it surely is worthy of being) as evidence of Vi’s first frustrated attempt at fulfilment, priming her for the arrival in her life of real-deal Verne? Overall, a great afternoon and a wonderful and well-taken opportunity for the group’s American accents and characterisations to get a full-blooded canter out onto the digital prairie (representing – as they turned out to - a very broad geographical range stretching from New Jersey to the Mississippi Delta). A great bootleg time was had by all, and at the end and in subsequent emails many hopes were expressed that the script make it onto the airwaves or to a wider audience in some other medium soon. Thanks to John (who at the end of the reading came out of virtual-world hiding to admit he had been covertly listening to the performance all along) for allowing us to experience the world of his forebears, especially in such a beautifully turned piece of work, and also to hear afterwards about the true-life family circumstances - and see the photos…..(see below).