But First This (Watermill Theatre, Newbury) – review by Carole Woddis.


Kathy Clugston is one of Radio 4’s most familiar voices.  Any morning of the week, you’ll hear her in her light Caledonian accent introducing the news, the shipping forecast and much else besides.

Unbeknownst to us, however, Clugston has another life as a witty wordsmith whose musical homage to Radio 4, But First This (books and lyrics by Clugston, music and additional lyrics by Desmond O’Connor) sends itself up with a glorious sense of the ridiculous.

More of a series of fast and furious comedy sketches tied together with a delightfully skimpy piece of thematic string – a dastardly Radio 4 Controller arrives at Broadcasting House determined to install radical changes: Radio 4 must be saved!  – the 1960s heyday of West End musical revues often springs to mind (particularly Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) in the resplendent figure of Big Ben, a character in sandy overalls who lurks in the bowels of the building, responsible for supplying the `big bongs’.

Nestling as it does in the also fairly delectable Watermill Theatre near Newbury, a more Radio 4 environment for But First This is hard to imagine.  Clugston’s mini musical with its trio of musicians in black ties, sits deliciously in what sometimes feels like an extended barn surrounded by landscaped lawns, swans, the watermill still in situ and an audience culled from the Home and surrounding counties hanging from the eaves and on every word.

Never one to let a name check go unrecorded, we get everyone and everything close to Radio 4 listeners’ hearts (and ones they love to hate) from Humphreys and Naughtie to Buerk and Mair, from The Archers (natch) to the Moral Maze and Farming Today.  Clugston saves some of her most surreal ideas however for The Today programme, the Shipping forecast  (later becomes the Snogging Forecast, see below), the six pips and the continuity links (recorded by former announcer Alice Arnold, largely on a theme of Tennessee Williams).

How much this all tickles your fancy is of course dependent on your Radio 4 allegiance.  As a part-time fan (it vies in my household with Radio 3 and usually loses out), I couldn’t help marvelling at the cast’s quick costume changes and Clugston’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity for puns.  …`And the classic serial (cereal) of the week will be muesli (you have to hear it to get the full flavour!).

The possible demise of the Shipping forecast lends itself to a particularly wonderful satirical riff on its function as the nation’s `lullaby’ whilst Naughtie himself is ordered to the four corners of the island (including Desert Island, complete with Kirsty Young) to chase down the whereabouts of the missing pips.  Played with avuncular charm by Jonathan Dryden Taylor, he’s matched by Michael Fenton Stevens steely `John’ (who gets a marvellous unbuttoning moment singing about his secret `fluffy’ side) and the larger than life Cruella Deville Controller of Radio 4, the magnificent Louise Plowright.

As a cockney, she once dreamed of becoming a Radio 4 announcer.  Turned down because of her accent, she returns, re-invented, as Celina Badminton, determined to wreak a terrible revenge on her RP oppressors, understandably!

Her piece de resistance also comes in the form of another persona, the Beeb’s pronunciation censor, delivering a tongue-twisting Gilbert & Sullivan treatise (with the rest of the cast) on enunciation and the skewering of the English language.

But First This isn’t going to bring the walls of Broadcasting House tumbling down any time soon.  It’s too affectionate for that.  But within the affection Clugston not only happily sends up musical conventions (two younger Today programme presenters sing a song of how they’re supposed to `fall in love’ but later do, hence the Snogging Forecast) but also takes some sharp, perfectly timed pot shots at the institution of `Auntie’ herself.  Only when `John’ starts singing about how he never told `Jim’ how much he thought of him when `Jim’ is lost somewhere in the northern isles does Clugston lose her cutting edge and resort to sentimentality.

Clever Clugston!  Look out for But First This coming to a theatre near you, somewhere in the New Year.  Or visit what has been handsomely described as one of the most welcoming theatres in the UK with an artistic programme, as one critic put it, that `consistently punches above its weight.’

But First This is at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury to Nov 8

see www.watermill.org.uk

© Carole Woddis.  Oct 2014.