Show Boat by Edna Ferber, adapted by Moya O'Shea

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BBC Radio 4, 20-27 February 2011
Mention the title Show Boat and I immediately think of the great Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein musical of 1927, memorably filmed in both 1936 and 1951. As a child I used to listen to a compilation LP Great Moments of the Movies, that contained recordings of great MGM musical performances, including Ava Gardner's rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" (with her voice dubbed by Annette Warren). The recording is now available on YouTube (
Paul Robeson's version of "Ol' Man River" - from James Whale's 1936 film - has become immortal.
Tracey Neale's classic serial production of Edna Ferber's original novel retained most of the plot-lines familiar from the films: the inexorable progress of the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre up the Mississippi river; the racial discrimination that was an accepted part of everyday life when the book first appeared; and the disastrous marriage of Magnolia Hawks (Samantha Spiro) to the gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Ryan McCluskey).
In thematic terms, however, Neale's approach could not have been more different. She related the progress of the boat up and down the Mississippi to the progress of life itself, through ingenious use of the spiritual "Deep River" that served as an introduction to each episode. The actors were born, grew up and died together, giving performances both good and bad, but understanding as they did so that they were part of a unique community. When Julie (Samantha Dakin) and her husband Steve (Henry Devas) were told by the authorities to leave the boat, on account of Julie having African-American blood in her (and therefore unable to perform in white-only towns), the rest of the company rallied round to support her. Both Magnolia and her daughter Kim (Lysette Anthony) left the show boat to pursue their stage careers elsewhere, but they were inexorably drawn back, as if the boat were the source of life itself. Time passed; attitudes changed; but the boat continued its inexorable progress up and down the Mississippi, with the management passing down from generation to generation. Captain Andy Hawks, Magnolia's father (Morgan Deare) bought the boat; when he passed away, his widow Parthenia (Laurel Lefkow) assumed responsibility; and when she died, Magnolia took over. To adapt the Kern/ Hammerstein lyric, the boat, like the river, kept "rollin' along."
In structural terms, Neale's Show Boat was a picaresque tale, with the characters experiencing both good and bad fortune and acquiring inner strength as a result. This was particularly true of Magnolia, who discovered early on that her marriage had been a mistake, but kept it going for Kim's sake. The various incidents taking place in Ferber's novel were summarized for us at the beginning of each episode by Andy, in a voice reminiscent of an emcee at a vaudeville show. This technique re-emphasized the link between the show boat and life itself: every incident in the novel resembled a turn on a vaudeville bill.
Although some of the cast's American accents occasionally slipped, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. McCluskey's Ravenal was full of superficial charm; his true nature only emerged when he whipped the horses pulling his dog-cart into a frenzy. Their pathetic whinnying could be heard in the background as Magnolia implored him to stop. However he refused to do so; once his blood was up, he became a different person altogether. Anthony's Kim assumed the narrator's role in the adaptation, recounting her memories for the benefit of a journalist from The New Yorker. At first she seemed rather hesitant, as if reluctant to talk about herself; but she gradually relaxed as she recalled how important the show boat was in her early life.
Beautifully embellished with period music from Neil Brand, with the banjo played by Mike Hammond. this Show Boat achieved the impossible; to redefine my understanding of Ferber's novel, which hitherto had been shaped solely by the musical.