A Thing Inside a Thing Inside a Thing by Iain Ross

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A Thing Inside a Thing Inside a Thing by Iain Ross. Dir. James Robinson. Perf. Julia McKenzie, Nina Toussaint-White, Matthew Gravelle. BBC Radio 4, 11 Jun. 2015. BBCiPlayer

In her earlier career Julia McKenzie had two separate images - first, she was an accomplished singer and musical comedy star of "Side by Side by Sondheim" and the memorable Royal National Theatre production of "Guys and Dolls" (1982); and second, the star of anodyne sitcoms such as "Fresh Fields" and its sequel "French Fields" with the late Anton Rodgers.

What a pleasure, then, to hear her playing against type as Joy, an eighty-nine-year old who has spent most of her life working on a giant machine floating in the shadow of Pluto. The monotony of her daily grind is suddenly interrupted when she discovers a giant space-craft hurtling towards the teeth of the machine with a full crew of people inside. Only she can save the world ...

This familiar science fiction scenario provides director James Robinson with the opportunity to focus on precisely what "being human" represents. It has nothing to do with valuing life for life's sake, but rather having the opportunity to express oneself freely; this is something Joy discovers and enjoys to the full. Although physically much weaker than Gregor (Matthew Gravelle), one of the crew members she has to encounter, she outwits him verbally, and eventually saves the craft by decapitating him. Don't ask why: just listen to the play if possible.

A Thing Inside a Thing Inside a Thing plays out like its title suggests, by peeling off the layers of scientific and technological discovery to examine whether humanity survives underneath. The fact that the task is a successful one is a tribute to Joy's strength of character.