Watermill Theatre - But First This
23rd October to 8th November 2014
Review from Newbury Theatre.
But First This is the première of Radio 4 announcer Kathy Clugston’s “Musical homage to Radio 4”, with music by Desmond O’Connor. If you’re a Radio 4 fan (fan sounds a bit too Radio 1 – maybe aficionado?) you’ll love it; if you’re not, you’ll still laugh.
The play centres on Today stalwarts John Humphrys, played by Michael Stevens as a bouncy and optimistic foil to Jonathan Dryden Taylor’s lugubrious Jim Naughtie. Selina Badminton (a splendidly exuberant performance from Louise Plowright) has just taken over as Controller of Radio 4 and needs to save money, to which end she proposes cutting out Woman’s Hour and the shipping forecast, and reducing the number of pips. As musicals always need a romantic sub-plot, weather man Will (Neil Ditt) and newsreader Anna (Helena Blackman) look set to get it together. (OK, as plots go, it’s not up there with Hilary Mantel, but who cares?)
It’s full of esoteric Radio 4 references, which the audience got, some zany humour – Jim rowing across the Bristol Channel to Lundy in search of the missing pips, for example – and some good songs, ranging from patter songs to pastiches of love songs, all adding up to a funny, frenetic production.
Among the assorted other characters we meet Kirsty Young, from Helena Blackman, and Nicholas Parsons, from Neil Ditt. Running through it all is the recorded voice of Alice Arnold as continuity announcer, with a wonderful collection of awful puns.
Add to all this a group of BBC pedants picking up on clichés and bad grammar, an episode of The Archers in the style of Tennessee Williams, and the mysterious B.O.B on the minus sixth floor; now you’re getting the picture.
The music is provided by a three-piece combo of James Hulme, Ryan Trebilcock and Gavin Whitworth, suitably dressed in DJs. Designer Hayley Grindle’s set is simple, but pleasantly art deco, and Director Michael Kingsbury brings it all together in an exciting, fast-paced romp.
Catch it while you can – it’s only on until 8th November.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
The BBC Radio furore
Newsreader Kathy Clugston's irreverent musical take on life at the Beeb
But First This, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, November 8
Before the Home Service became Radio 4, a programme called Lift Up Your Hearts made the day start well. Owners of hearts that need uplifting today should buy tickets to enjoy Kathy Clugston's extremely funny take on Radio 4 life in But First This, directed by Michael Kingsbury.
Described as a homage to Radio 4 and with music and additional lyrics by Desmond O'Connor, Clugston's familiarity with life at the Beeb (she has been an announcer for several years) makes the story of what happens when new Controller Selina decides to give the channel a pruning, (almost) entirely believable.
Selina (Louise Plowright, a gorgeously awful Cruella de Vil of a woman) announces - to the horrified Today team of John Humphrys (Michael Fenton Stevens), Jim Naughtie (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) and Anna and Will (Helena Blackman and Neil Ditt) - aware they must be regarded as the two reluctant love interests - that changes must be made.
Womans' Hour is to become Humans' Hour (cue for best song of the show from John, Jim and Will) the Shipping Forecast (Britain's lullaby) must sink without trace and, oh horror, the pips will be reduced from six to three.
What follows is hilarious, with the skilful actors assuming various characters, who frequently break into song, accompanied by a jolly three-piece band. As the announcer (Alice Arnold) introduces programmes, the humour flows fast and you'd have to see the show more than once to pick up on it all. The Archers' inept sound effects man had the audience crying with laughter as did Jim 'rowing' to Lundy to see if Kirsty Young (Helena Blackman) had stolen the missing pips. He returns, clad in delectable underpants, to be told "We thought you were dead." The reply: "What! In a comedy?"
Finally, Will hits on the successful idea of asking celebrities to tweet to get rid of Selina. The pips are recovered, Rockall, Shannon and German Bight return to their rightful place and the reluctant lovers are reluctant no more.
And it's all so true. We do love the Shipping Forecast, with its familiar names guarding our island, and it is guaranteed to send us to sleep happy. Change Woman's Hour? Reduce the pips? Impossible. A cleverly-written play providing an uproarious evening's entertainment.
Review from Theatre Cat (Libby Purves).
Radio 4 announcers tend to have a dry, contained sense of humour, honed by years in their lonely hutches listening to that most literate of networks, observing its idiosyncrasies and reading both news bulletins and programme introductions without ever betraying their secret opinions (you had to know the legendary Peter Donaldson for decades before you could detect the undertones of satire in his bland deep-brown announcements. Even then it was uncertain.)
So there is a real buzz in encountering, in this tiny adventurous producing-house, a comedy musical written by Kathy Clugston, one of those announcers. It has music and additional lyrics by Desmond O’Connor, and a spirit of mischievous affection shared utterly by her first-night audience . You knew she was preaching to the choir as soon as the defunct UK Theme, axed by Mark Damazer, began its Rule-Britannia chords before the start and everyone went “aaahhhh!”.
In moments we were into the first number, with John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie (Michael Fenton Stevens catching the Humph with uncanny accuracy and deadly humour) and Jonathan Dryden Taylor, who actually looks more like Peter Hobday but who got the monologuous questioning style bang on. And as the weatherman (Neil Ditt) and newsreader (Helena Blackman) sparred with authentic dawn ill-temper as the romantic juveniles, we learned the engine of the plot: that the Controller (Louise Plowright) was threatening dreadful cuts to the network, reducing the pips and abolishing Woman’s Hour and the Shipping Forecast.
To be honest, the first number and early minutes made me wonder whether it would sink beneath the weight of insider affection (though the wealth of groanworthy punning programme titles from an invisible Alice Arnold was fun from the start “The Classic serial will be – muesli”.). It is really more of a revue for R4 lovers, sending up musical-theatre itself and disguising a slightly too-fey plot with quick changes and daft beards. But Clugston’s strength is in big numbers, and some of them are lyrically brilliant. A trio led by Naughtie sings of a sneaky male addiction to Woman’s Hour; a marvellous interlude in the Pronunciation And Grammar Pedantry department hits many grudges about language (“What’s the use of saying utilize? And impact is not a verb!”). It should be played on the real Radio 4 daily. Another showstopper is Humphrys’ confessing his secret love for scented candles, petting zoos and Michael Bublé.
There are flashes of real wickedness, not least the downfall of the evil Controller (Plowright storming the role) as she accepts the standard management punishment of being “moved to a higher position in a different department”. So I was won right round. And in the style of the Shipping Forecast, whose fate provides a running theme , let’s just say: General situation: Plot fair, occasionally rough. Scilly, gags advancing , becoming strong. Cast good becoming very good. Intermittent puns, poor becoming adorable. Over-Forties: very happy with occasional singalong. Outlook: possibly moving Westward. Good.
Review from the Daily Telegraph.
You know those Radio 4 comedy shows that are so cringe-making you almost end up shouting at them? Well, I’m afraid that considerable sections of this new “musical homage” to the station have the capacity to induce a similar sense of exasperation.
Perhaps that counts as a success of sorts for have-a-go composer Kathy Clugston, who will be a familiar (Northern Irish) voice to regular R4 listeners – she’s been an announcer since 2006. Those who head to 92.5-96.1 FM in search of output that’s cosy, bland and self-indulgent may feel at home in the company of a show that demands little more than it be genteelly appreciated, and then swiftly forgotten.
But anyone who cherishes Radio 4 as a part of our national life – instructing, entertaining and provoking us, irritating at times, yes, but essential too – will surely feel that a golden opportunity has been spotted only to slip through the devisers’ fingers. If Clugston and co (Desmond O’Connor has collaborated on the score and lyrics, Michael Kingsbury directs) had stuck to the simple advertised premise of “a day in the life” of the station, its rich varieties and peculiarities would possibly have been far better served.
An anodyne opening number conjures little of the combative, caffeinated excitement of the Today programme but at least sets a chronological agenda. Yet no sooner have we been introduced to a cuddlier-than-expected John Humphrys (Michael Fenton Stevens) and fittingly circumlocutory Jim Naughtie (Jonathan Dryden Taylor), than any fidelity to the daily schedule is abandoned.
The show is subsumed by a whimsical, surrealistic storyline about an attempt by a modernising – boo-hiss! – Controller (Louise Plowright’s snarling Selina) to cut back on the “pips”, make Woman’s Hour a thing of the past and torpedo The Shipping Forecast. There’s also an archly self-aware romantic sub-plot involving weatherman Will and newsreader Anna (Neil Ditt and Helena Blackman).
To be fair, a witty male-centred paean to the topical diversity of Woman’s Hour (“Voodoo in Haiti/ Great sex when you’re 80”) makes you sit up and listen. I enjoyed too the verbal dash of a number about the po-faced pedants who police every sentence uttered as well as the satirical sting of the first act’s closer – “You’ll never hear a cockney on the radio!” – complete with Pearly Kings and Queens in a knees-up chorus-line.
But these are glints of promise amid a sea of static. There are too many dreadful puns, not nearly enough allusions made to programmes most of us love, or love to loathe – Gardeners’ Question Time, The Moral Maze, The World Tonight etc.
The quick-changing company can’t be faulted – throwing themselves into every scene with gusto, a trio of musicians ranged on either side. Designer Hayley Grindle has come up trumps too with a dinky art-deco set. But it’s as if Clugston has neither fully exploited her knowledge as a BBC insider nor truly appreciated the passions of the avid listener at home. Don’t give up that day-job yet, Kath.
Review from The Times.
Is there a place in musical theatre for jokes about the Shipping Forecast and The Archers? This musical homage to Radio 4 by one of its continuity announcers, Kathy Clugston, proves that there is. It’s silly, it’s inward-looking and it’s often very funny.
“If they’re powerful, good or great, we’ll have them on at ten past eight,” sing the Today team as the show begins. A stripy-shirted John Humphrys turns, bearlike, to the audience: “Politicians! Bring me politicians! Stops these pointless intermissions!”
Straight away Clugston’s rhymes and Desmond O’Connor’s skilful show tunes, convince us that this will be more than a one-joke wonder. We can’t help but care when a new controller arrives to end Woman’s Hour (“let’s get realistic, it’s just anachronistic”) and the Shipping Forecast.
And, for the first half at least, the great ideas keep coming: numbers such as You’ll Never Hear a Cockney On the Radio (Unless You’re Listening to 5Live), complete with pearly king and queen chorus, and I’m a Man Who Listens To Woman’s Hour. There are gags about grammar, Nicholas Parsons, the hourly pips. It’s like a media panto for the middle-class and middle-aged.
It’s a giant inside joke: but then, since 7 million people listen to Today each week, a lot of us are in on it. Granted, Clugston has a perfect crowd, when the phrase “PG Wodehouse read by Martin Jarvis” elicits sighs from the stalls. Yet it earns its indulgences. Or it does until a less consistently inspired second half in which the jokes become more obvious. Something is lost as Clugston gets busier with her affectionate mocking of musical theatre and less busy with her affectionate postmodern mocking of Radio 4.
Still, Michael Kingsbury’s production, staged on a handsome art deco studio design by Hayley Grindle, is played with the right note of outsized comic brio by its cast of five. Michael Fenton Stevens looks and sounds the part as the burring Humphrys, cowed by Louise Plowright’s evil controller, while Jonathan Dryden Taylor gets the attitude if not quite the voice as the long-winded Jim Naughtie.
But First This needs some fine-tuning, but it deserves a further life. It’s odd, imaginative and fun. And how many Radio 4 comedies can you say that about?
Review from the British Theatre Guide.
I must confess that I am an ardent BBC Radio 4 listener so was intrigued by the Watermill’s But First This, a musical homage to Radio 4. It is a sheer delight, wonderfully funny with irreverent tongue-in-cheek humour.
Kathy Clugston’s new musical is a witty expose "of some of the internal politics of the BBC" and she should know what she’s talking about, as she was a radio announcer with Aunty Beeb. Desmond O’Connor provides the jaunty music and additional lyrics in a joyous pastiche of styles.
The Art Déco set designed by Hayley Grindle provides the perfect background for the radio studio complete with “On Air” sign.
And what better place to start than with the axed UK Theme that used to start R4 first thing in the morning, much to the delight of the audience.
The protagonists are John Humphrys, a remarkable performance from Michael Fenton Stevens who portrays the stalwart of the Today programme with panache, and his co-presenter, Jim Naughtie impeccably played by Jonathan Dryden Taylor who captures his dry sense of humour and resolute, lengthy questioning perfectly.
The plot revolves around the new Draconian controller Selina, powerfully played by Louise Plowright, who is determined to make savings by cutting Woman’s Hour: “well how much more is there to say about the menopause?” Worst still, she wants to reduce the number of pips and get rid of the Shipping Forecast.
But she also has a dark secret and is not exactly the posh character she portrays.
The unseen announcer voiced by Alice Arnold provides the continuity information with some wonderfully funny one-liners such as, “The classic serial this week will be—Muesli.”
There is excellent support from Neil Ditt as the hapless weatherman and Helena Blackman as the newsreader, but will romance blossom between them? Scott Mills has a cameo appearance as the Radio 1 DJ.
There are big production numbers that are energetically staged by choreographer Lizzi Gee and a hilarious song about men who listen to Woman’s Hour and a revelation that Humphrys has a fetish for fluffy things, petting zoos and Michael Bublé.
Guest appearances include a spoof Nicholas Parsons and a member from the pronunciation and grammar department who reminds us that “impact is not a verb.”
Directed with élan by Michael Kingsbury, who keeps the pace flowing, this is a wonderful celebration of all things R4 that is simply superb as the enthusiastic applause testified. The Watermill Theatre has a true gem on their hands that deserves a future after its short run in Newbury.