Anything that involves Maxine Peake is sure to stir up a good crowd, indeed Hull showed its enthusiasm with a large audience, as part of the BBC Contains Strong Language Festival. This live recorded radio play of ‘The Mother’, originally written by Bertolt Brecht, felt like a well-orchestrated game of musical chairs. It tells the story of Pelagea Vlassova, whose action to prevent her son’s imprisonment results in her becoming enthralled in the revolutionary movement.
As the host of northern talent took to the stage, I found myself a little in awe. Each actor found their seat, script delicately in hand, as the BBC Philharmonic began; brought in by the conductor HK Gruber. The musical chairs element was a helpful tool not only for the actors, but for the audience too. Peake stayed the same character throughout of Pelagea Vlassova, but the rest of the cast predominantly multi-roled. With each change of character, came a new accent or posture. By sitting back down in the chairs after speaking, each actor had the time to take on their new character. On a practical level, it also meant that the sound of them turning their scripts could not be heard via the recording microphones. It was a reminder to the audience of how much effort goes into voice acting and a behind the scenes ‘look’ not many are privy to. It opened up the private world of radio play, traditionally hidden away in rooms and left to the audience’s imagination. We were able to see how the noises of doors closing, or writing on a chalk board were made; equally to me, as exciting as the rich storyline of pre-revolution Russia.
The Brechtian conventions of using placards, to show a change in location or scene, were still used to the side of the stage. With each placard change, came a change in seat too; imagine those school disco hits abruptly stopping, as the actors approached the mic. The booming ferocity and excitement given by the Kantos Chamber Choir and BBC Philharmonic, acted as a form of story-telling as well. Andy Coxon who played Pavel, Pelagea Vlassova’s son, gave a beautiful vocal performance. His range and power alongside the orchestra, presented an alternative side to his character- one that was passionate and driven to fight. The audience’s appraisal of his singing was matched by the cast, who all leaned down the line of chairs to congratulate him. The storyline had quick-witted humour interspersed throughout. Peake’s northern attitude added comedy to lines which resonated clearly with the audience. Particularly her refusal to give Pavel’s new friends tea, as she was suspicious of their intentions! As any northerner will attribute to, tea is a big deal; both the meal and the drink.
I was beaming throughout this performance. It had tenderness yet oomph and showed the willingness of the human spirit to fight against social injustice, which felt all too appropriate for the current political climate. It airs on BBC Radio 3 at 6:30pm on 6th October.