BBC Radio 4, 31 August 2013
Johnny Vegas' enthralling production
took us back to a repressive world whose morality were clearly defined: anyone making a girl pregnant automatically had
to marry them, "living in sin" was frowned upon, and reputation mattered. The sexes had clearly defined roles: men were
the breadwinners who had to "protect" their women, while the women spent their lives educating their children to behave "properly."
While Arthur Machin (James Purefoy)
tried his best to fit into this world, he remained a perpetual misfit. Unable to communicate with his lover
Mrs. Hammond (Emily Watson), he tried to please her with consumer goods - a fur coat, a new television. When
she berated him for his lack of tenderness, his instinctive reaction was to hit her out of sheer frustration. |
Yet Vegas suggested that this
was not really his fault. As a professional rugby league player, he was on public display both on an off the field:
everyone expected him to conform to the stereotypical image of a hard man who took no prisoners. Vegas emphasized how
this stereotype was disseminated through the media by means of the commentator (Ray French) describing Machin's games.
A hard man can be both good and bad in the public eye; hence Machin was often accused of bad behaviour (drunkenness, illicit
sex), even when he was not actively involved.
Imprisoned by the stereotype, Machin found himself almost totally at a loss. The only
real place where he could express himself without fearing the consequences was on the rugby field. As he bore down on
the opposition, he reflected in a series of soliloquies (delivered direct to listeners) on his past, present and future.
Purefoy's performance in the central role was nothing short of wondrous; he emphasized how Machin wanted to show
tenderness towards his loved ones, but was prevented from doing so by his emotional inadequacies. He knew he was
a victim of the society that lionized him (as a professional rugby player), but could find no way out. Nor
could anyone else help him - even his well-meaning parents (Gwyneth Powell, Wayne Forester) kept telling him to behave "properly"
by leaving Mrs. Hammond alone and staying at home as a single person.
An ultimately sad tale of a sporting "noble savage" caged and put on show every Saturday
(like an animal in a zoo), Vegas' production was both sonically rich - with the sounds of the changing room, dancehall
and kitchen hearth evoking a vanished world - yet touching.