Audio production company Big Finish is deservedly best known for its science fiction and fantasy releases, most notably its range of original Doctor Who dramas and associated spin-offs, as well as audiobook dramas with TV tie-ins from Stargate to Robin Hood.
Recently it has been spreading its wings a little further. From the beautiful translation and full cast dramatisation of Phantom of the Opera (one of the best audio dramas of recent years, easily on a par with the top flight of the BBC’s output) to short story compilations by Robert Shearman, there’s a clear desire for the company to expand its dramatic horizons.
And while there has undoubtedly been a lot of involvement from others in the production of this play – Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design alone is far deeper and richer than most radio dramas, capitalising on the experience Big Finish has acquired on its sci-fi ranges – this is a tour de force by one woman, Katy Manning.
Still best known for her role as miniskirt-clad klutz Jo Grant in Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who era (a role she reprised to great acclaim in CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures last year), Manning has not only written this tale of a loveable, slightly damaged woman, but she performs every single one of the many roles in the piece. And, in most cases, she’s incredibly good at creating new characters and instilling them with lots of character through accent, tone and inflection. True, her older gentlemen tend to all sound like Mary Wimbush, but as far as vocal range and the ability to convey a sense of character with voice alone, I’ve rarely heard better.
Manning’s heroine, Pansy, is a short-sighted, well-meaning, performance-obsessed individual who acts crazily and finds herself in even crazier situations. I’m sure whole volumes could be written about how much of the character is autobiographical, but to dismiss Pansy as Katy Manning-lite would be to ignore some of the beauty of Manning’s writing in creating such a vivid and complex character.
If anything hampers the writing, it’s an uncertainty about whether this is a dramatised novel or an original play. The timeframe jumps wildly from scene to scene in ways that would work more effectively in a literary work than it does here. It does avoid the frequent pitfall of dumping too much exposition at the start of the piece, though – and as that’s a particular bugbear of mine, I was particularly happy to let Manning’s writing reveal Pansy’s back story more gradually than might otherwise have happened.
Once you get used to the fragmented nature of the storytelling, though, it’s a compelling tale that holds the attention for the full 70 minutes running time. I must admit that, used as I am to radio plays and audiobooks ending with closing credits, the lack of any such fripperies on Not a Well Woman made an already abrupt ending seem all the more perfunctory.
Next month sees the second of the Drama Showcase titles, Pulling Faces, written by Helen Goldwyn and featuring a full cast headed by Louise Jameson. In many ways, that might have been a safer, more populist way to launch a range that’s clearly aimed at a larger audience than Big Finish’s core listenership. But by starting with such an idiosyncratic production that sounds unlike most audio dramas, Big Finish is at the very least showing that it’s not afraid to take creative risks.