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.

Rebecca Wicking 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.

Rebecca, 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 to unwind.

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.

Elizabeth Power 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 portrayal.

Neville Watchurst 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 performance.

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 the rational.

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.

Charley From Outside - a one-hour radio drama by Frank Johnson and John Park - was recorded in London on Monday 10 April 2000.

Charley From Outside Main Page

Charley Recording Studio Page

John Park Biography Page

Frank Johnson Biography Page

John Park's article which was published in The Guardian 23/8/2000

IRDP Home Page