Theatre Review: A Leap in the Dark @ The New Vic

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Difficult to believe for the modern-day radio listener and the plethora of material available to choose from but a hundred years ago there was a paucity of choice available for the privileged few. With the BBC being the only broadcaster commissioned to send programmes out on to the airwaves it was a case of take their highbrow output or leave it – and the majority of the potential audience definitely left the diet of classical and traditional music to its minority target audience.

A Leap In The Dark is a tongue-in-cheek telling of how the Beeb decided to break the mould of the fare on offer by creating a Drama Department.

A bold move but the service was not launched with a tremendous deal of enthusiasm. There were few personnel committed to a half-hearted idea and even less in the way of resources as was made clear to the new Head of Drama Cedric Maud (Perry Moore) by the man who held the purse strings Sir Ambrose Billingsby (Robert Pickavance)

With no financial backing and a dearth of support from his superiors, Maud – who had been selected for his position because he was male, had been to the right university and had worked for the Times Literary Supplement rather than any knowledge of the theatre – would have found it very difficult to fulfil his duties if he had not been fortunate enough to hire Grace Gumby (Alyce Liburd) as his Clerical (she thought Creative) Assistant.

Gumby has a working knowledge of modern theatre and – with the dubious support of wireless manufacturer Lady Hartley (Angela Bain) – she suggests avant-garde Director Nigel Playfair (Andrew Pollard) as the Director for the historic new genre.

Playfair is reluctant to become involved – he is far more interested in developing the perfect marmalade – but when it is suggested to him that arch-rival Noel Coward is the other potential Director that the Corporation has in mind – and with the positive support of his wife May (Suzanne Ahmet) – a Director is found and the hunt is on for a script-writer.

With most targets discounted because of cost, young playwright Richard Hughes (Ben Norris) is approached. Despite being a very difficult person to work with, Hughes eventually provides a script for a play entitled A Comedy of Danger set in the depressing environs of a colliery disaster in Wales.

This was not the uplifting material that was originally requested but with the production already announced in the Radio Times the show has to go on. Gumby does hasty rewrites of the script, two out of work actors are recruited (played by Norris and Pickavance), sound effects are created by charlady Mrs Stanley (Bain) and a studio is created from a storage space in the bowels of Broadcasting House.

This play within a play is a delight to watch with its visual gags and knockabout humour as the cast desperately try to get to the end of what they see as a theatrical disaster.

But will A Comedy of Danger win public acclaim. If it does then those responsible will rise to the highest positions in our national broadcaster and Gumby will become the first Dame in broadcasting history. Or maybe not.

This is a beautifully affectionate piece of theatre and pays homage to a type of drama that we have become almost blasé about. But the cast did well to play their parts with the affection and luvviness that it required. Other parts in the play were acted by Madeleine Leslay who played her part in the action that kept a packed audience absorbed and entertained throughout.

The cast did Director Caroline Wilkes proud and Wilkes was ably supported by her creative team with special mention for Lighting and Projection Designer Daniella Beattie. The original production was itself originally a play for radio. Written by Ron Hutchinson for Radio4, it was adapted for the stage by Hutchinson and Alisa Taylor.

A Leap In The Dark suggests a scary experience awaits the audience. Far from it. Rather than tingling the spine this show definitely tickles the chuckle muscles. A lovely experience and a great night out.

A Leap In The Dark continues at The New Vic until March 2nd For ticket information contact 01782 717962