But First This (Watermill, Newbury)

Kathy Clugston’s irreverent insider homage to Radio 4 is huge fun – and not just a good listen!

To seek an ideal home for a show that simultaneously sends up and bigs up BBC Radio 4, look no further than The Watermill. Pull up your metaphorical armchair, hold out your hands to the warm glow of the wireless and heave a sigh of pleasure as the strains of the UK Theme are once again heard on England’s green and pleasant airwaves.

Kathy Clugston and Desmond O’Connor‘s homage to Radio 4 boasts a stunning line up of performers, who between the five of them can morph into a range of Radio 4 sacred cash cows, especially the male icons of the Today programme team (Michael Fenton Stevens channelling John Humphreys and Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Jim Naughtie to perfection); their support team of wimpy weather forecaster Will (Neil Ditt) and no-nonsense newsreader Anna (Helena Blackman); and among others, a gang of grammarians assiduous enough to put Henry Higgins to shame.

All this smacks of insider trading and sure enough Kathy Clugston is indeed a newsreader – the one with the sexy Scots vowels that so effortlessly caress the listener …

It works so very well as a series of songs and sketches, along the lines of the long-laid-to-rest Radio 4 satire show Week Ending, that it hardly needs a storyline – a dastardly new Controller hell-bent on cuts for very personal reasons – let alone a self-referential subplot in which Will and Anna play the Beatrice and Benedick of the airwaves. But hey, Louise Plowright, almost in dominatrix mode, is so – well, mistressful – as Selina, abrasive chopper of Greenwich pips and manipulator of language to convert Woman’s Hour into Human Hour, that she’s ‘worth it’.

Working through the Radio 4 day, starting with a Today programme opener to introduce the central characters, gives the show a nice shape. And who could possibly resist two male worshippers at the shrine of Woman’s Hour, waxing lyrical over its range of items from "The plight of Madame Bovary" to "The cycle of an ovary"? Certainly not this contributor to the fabled 55-minute Hour, who happens to know that more than 40% of Woman’s Hour listeners are indeed men!

Director Michael Kingsbury no slouch in the continuity department, ensures the show moves at a cracking pace. Choreographer Lizzi Gee has come up with some delectable routines, impeccably performed on designer Hayley Grindle‘s compact radio studio set. Its elegance suggests the art deco of Old Broadcasting House, including one of the lifts which many fleeting meetings do indeed take place. The ‘Cockerney’ pearly kings and queens (you’ll have to see the show to find out why they’re there!) are a special delight; and musical director Desmond O’Connor, with James Hulme, drums, Ryan Trebilcok bass and Gavin Whitworth, piano, artfully arranged on each side of the set, does full justice to Desmond O’Connor’s perky songs and the clever lyrics Kathy has written with him.