Ever since John Finnemore’s spectacular radio series Cabin Pressure ended, I’ve been on a hunt to find new shows. Sure, there are wonderful podcasts out there like Welcome to Night Vale, but I missed cuddling up with my laptop to listen to BBC Radio 4. Then I noticed at the end of August that my favorite actor Michael Socha posted on Twitter he was in a radio play. I decided to give it a try.
While not a full series like Cabin Pressure, I fell into the 45 minute world of Northern Lights by Paul Fraser. For a the most part, it was an emotional ride with great humor wrapped into the dialogue. It only has a few more days left to stream, so check it out on BBC Radio 4’s website.
I gave you the link to Northern Lights, because my following review contains spoilers.
- The slice-of-life format is what truly made Northern Lights shine. We caught the ensemble in the middle of their average lives covering a few bad days. From a musician failing to sell CD’s to the man in a bear suit under attack from children, the cast built a remarkable and believable world. Mr. Fraser presented the play in short scenes, most of which were a minute or less. These vignettes put power in every word. He built a sense of history among the characters while sneaking in little whammies of humor. The format also allowed the story to bait and switch the plotline. It began like a romantic drama of a man who missed his chance with the woman he loves. The second act swapped that to distract the listener away from Tom’s (Mr. Socha) feelings. With the character’s mother missing, I thought we were about to head into a murder mystery. Mr. Fraser was able to let the action drive Tom back to his lost love and help his not-actually-killed mother rekindle her own marriage.
- With the story set in a caravan park (a RV park for us Americans), Mr. Fraser built a beautiful sense of community among the characters. You can tell they’re all constantly relying on each other to complete their jobs. Many of them share the same stuck feelings of wanting to escape their average lives. This kind of scenario is one that many people relate to. We all know what it’s like to feel trapped in our situations. Some of us have coworkers who help and support us as well. In fact, Northern Lights reminded me of when I was a camp counselor years ago. Off on our own, it was up to us adults to protect small groups of children. It was fun, but it definitely wasn’t easy. After the kids left for the day, we would often sit around and vent to each other. The characters in Northern Lights had multiple scenes like this. Separately, the characters don’t shine, but they’re definitely at their best as an ensemble.
- Even though I had some problems with it which I’ll get to in a moment, I appreciated the theme of learning how to be happy for someone when they love another person. Moving past that heartbreak and saving a friendship is hard. Mr. Socha portrayed those moments eloquently when the most subtle nuances changed in his voice. Even with his blunt trademark humor, he brought a heavy sadness and pathetic moments (in a good way) to Tom. He also knows when to be silent letting emotional beats sink in for the listener. This was my first time hearing him on a radio show, and he was magnificent. But it was Rachael Deering, playing the love interest Abby, who handled her character beautifully well. She embodied a woman ready to move on who held her ground against a friend she loved. It’s never easy standing up to those we care about, but Miss Deering didn’t pull Abby’s punches. Her monologue to Tom calling out his selfishness battling her happiness was the best moment of the entire play. Miss Deering was definitely the MVP of the show.
What needed work
- I only had one big gripe for Northern Lights. I don’t feel that Tom earned his ending with Abby. The guy was a pissy, drunk jerk for the entire play. He never had a redeemable moment. It was sheer happenstance of an external force, Tom’s mother leaving for two days, that drove Abby away from her fiance to Tom. If Tom’s mother hadn’t left, he wouldn’t have gotten the girl. I wish Mr. Fraser instead explored the terrible, hard, and often times self deprecating journey of being happy for someone you love if they don’t love you back. That complexity was missing from Tom for the entire show. I wanted to see a character rise above his own tragedy, find somewhat the beginning steps of happiness, accepting he missed his chance, and possibly start to move on. Instead, we got a rushed ending where the jerk won in the end because his mommy snapped a photo. If the final five minutes were removed, this would have been a stellar and satisfying drama.
Though, as a counterpoint, I do appreciate the sense of work needing to be done between the two. Abby didn’t run into Tom’s arms like a Disney Princess to her Charming man in the middle of the RV park. It gave a bit of insight that the couple might not work out, but they are willing to try.
I gave Northern Lights a 7 out of 10. It’s still a great listen overall. Check it out over on BBC 4 Radio while it’s up for the next few days.