CHARLEY - by JOHN PARK
Playing out the
murder of a disabled child is a tough call for an actor.
Frances Barber acts
a mother who is driven to the edge by her severely autistic son. She
has to show the audience several facets of Tessa, steeped in crisis
- worker, wife, mother of 'normal' daughters, and mother of autistic
Charley. She must convey how she cracks up - with 'the quiet desperation
of the English middle classes' rather than easy hysterics. All this
in 8 hours of recording, and 46 minutes running time.
Frances has over
50 major film and TV credits before counting her work in theatre and
modern radio drama. We steal her from her latest film for a day's
recording in South London. It's a coup for the production to have
this outstanding British actress.
Charley From Outside
is to be taped in sequence. Because plays are recorded in fragments,
they can be done in any order. But director Richard Shannon feels
it essential today to work in running order, to help the actors in
build to the climax.
Aden Gillett plays
a father who holds the family together. By coincidence he looks the
part. A tall man with ruggedly handsome good looks, also kind and
fatherly. (Yes, nature's unfair to the rest of us.) When the script
was first written, he played the same part in a five-minute live action
reading at the Tricycle Theatre, and the audience thundered applause.
The chemistry between
Frances and Aden is vital. Radio is a cruel medium to actors, because
it sniffs out the slightest trace of insincerity. They play two parents
who love each other deeply, and have endured ten years of Charley's
destructiveness. They also love him, and their other children. The
bond between these parents is profound, and the actors hit it immediately.
Producer Tim Crook
is making coffee at the studio when I arrive at 9.30 am. My co-writer
Frank was abroad so couldn’t be there. Tim and director Richard Shannon
empty out their pockets to see who can pay for one of the taxis -
you may recognise this moment, as I did. Frances, Aden, and the young
actors arrive at 10 am and by 10.15 we're in the studio.
brings intelligence and commitment to the difficult part of Zoe. Her
character has the combative relationship with parent Tessa that most
mothers of teenage daughters will recognise. Rebecca handles this
expertly. She's into the studio at the start, standing on a table
to bring her mouth level with the adult actors at the microphone.
Hannah Edwards is
a superb young actress, with a fine grasp of 5 year-old Bucket's speech
and character. Throughout the day she takes direction flawlessly,
with an precision that amazes. This is a vital part and she plays
it to perfection. She stands on an even higher table, as she's only
a few years older than her character.
Aden, Frances and Hannah in the studio
The three young
actors have a chaperone, Lesley, who supervises travelling and looks
after their welfare during the day. She waits in the green room. Hannah
and Rebecca go to the same stage school, and are smartly uniformed
- complete with ties. An abiding memory of the day is the three children,
off-duty in the green room, each on mobile phones. 'Making deals with
their agents,' Frances says. We tease Hannah, and she's indignant
- 'I bought it from my earnings.'
Scott Charles plays
the severely autistic Charley. Much of the part is noise, such as
banging and slamming - a kind of communication. Scott's task is to
convey the character in this unusual way. He has taken the trouble
to visit an autistic school, with chaperone and director Richard Shannon.
His time spent listening and watching among severely autistic children
produces a superbly convincing performance.
Richard breaks for
lunch at 1.30 pm. He has organised recording so that the actors do
about a page of script at a time. Typically this is 8 speeches - perhaps
a minute of recording. Only the actors involved in the scene are in
the studio, and go to the green room when not recording. This is essential
to keep fresh, and to revise the next lines. Lunch is the most crucial
break of all. The first three and a half hours in the studio makes
big demands on the actors' concentration, and it's a welcome chance
Over lunch, Frances
is very funny, Aden quietly humorous, and there's a relaxed mood round
the table. The young actors have gone off hoping there's a Macdonald's
in New Cross - with chaperone. (New Cross, for anyone unfamiliar with
South London, is rough, and not near anywhere. The riot shields on
the shop windows have riot shields.)
More actors arrive
for the afternoon session. Julie-Ann Gillitt has come from preparing
for Titania in Midsummer Night's Dream, and acts extensively in the
theatre and on TV. Her expertise creates three totally different roles
during the afternoon.
Nadine Hanwell plays
a harassed doctor, unyielding employer, and neutral telephone operator.
An experienced radio performer, Nadine is able to make each a totally
convincing and sympathetic character.
plays Mrs Jillott, a welfare officer. Mrs Jillott is an unpleasant
presence at the fringe of the family. Elizabeth brings a delicacy
to the acting of her that suggests this by nuance - a subtle and effective
is both actor and playwright. Today he acts three parts including
a French priest in Notre Dame Cathedral. There is silence in the control
room as he speaks the Lord's Prayer in French - a fine and moving
At 4.25 the cast
breaks for a group photograph outside. It's a sunny hot spring day
and all the trees are coming into leaf. It's a relief to get out into
the open before the grim part of the play which follows. There is
a lot of giggling, like at school.
Frances, Aden, Hannah
and Rebecca have at this point brought us (the audience) to a family
on the brink of disaster - though only the mother knows this. In the
story the rest of the family are away and Tessa is alone with Charley.
Frances has shown us the effect of extreme stress on Tessa. She must
now turn her into a murderer.
The task for Aden,
Hannah and Rebecca is to contrast this by their portrayal of father
and daughters together, secure in their deep love for each other.
The relationships between Aden's father and each of the two daughters
is subtly different. Hannah and Rebecca are sensitive to this. Their
studio performances in a fast, rigorous, schedule, are remarkable.
Aden is alert in
his interpretation both to these relationships and to the character's
sense of impending disaster. Richard's decision to record in sequence
helps the two adult actors to bring their work to a pinnacle.
Frances allows Tessa
to become glacial. Her voice takes on a mother-makes-a-list tone.
But she is able to create some - I don't know where it comes from,
that's why she's such a sought-after actress - presence - behind this,
that is utterly horrible.
When she kills Charley,
the tension in the control room is electrifying.
It is difficult
to describe the emotions I feel at this point. Having co-written the
play, of course I knew what would happen - as did the actors and director.
But I still want to cry, and do so. Not floods, but tears. So does
the director, I think the producer too. When she comes out of the
studio, Frances has damp eyes. There is a point at which, because
we're all human beings, we simply cannot separate the emotional from
This is not theatrical
whimsy. Killing someone and acting it are clearly separate - an actor
is not a killer. But to portray it, the actor must push back her revulsion
and take us there. It's a dangerous territory for us to enter. It's
essential we release the emotion.
When the rest of
the actors have gone, Richard needs to have Tessa on tape reciting
part of Dante's Purgatorio. It has an extraordinarily calming effect
in the control room. Perhaps Frances feels so too.
She sits on a stool
in the studio and recites poetry from 800 years ago about the possibility
of redemption. The only sound in the building is her gentle, classically
trained voice. We only need a few lines, but in the end Frances reads
the whole chapter. Nobody wants her to stop.
Outside - a one-hour radio drama by Frank Johnson and John Park -
was recorded in London on Monday 10 April 2000.
From Outside Main Page
Recording Studio Page
Park Biography Page
Johnson Biography Page
Park's article which was published in The Guardian 23/8/2000