BBC Radio 7, 26 February 2010
Imagine the Rude Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream involved in a Shakespeare masterclass and you will get some idea of what this madcap parody was like. Inspired by programmes such as Playing Shakespeare, the 1980s series presented by former Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton, The Compleat Life sought to present a workshop given by Brian Cox (who appeared as himself in the programme). Unfortunately things kept going wrong: Desmond Olivier Dingle (Patrick Barlow) and his company went to the wrong radio studio, could not find Cox, and decided to impersonate him themselves. Cox rushed along the corridor to find them, and accidentally ran into the Controller of BBC Radio 4 (Peter Donaldson). He subsequently spent some time trying to explain why he was actually not in the studio set aside for the broadcast. Once Cox finally met up with company, he found it impossible to give his workshop - chiefly because no one knew who he actually was. The actor subsequently had a nervous breakdown, and screamed out the lines "Never, never, never, never, never!" and "Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl!" from King Lear in frustration. Meanwhile Dingle and his company decided to forget the workshop altogether and present instead a programme on Shakespeare's life, interspersed with extracts from Henry V. Unfortunately Cox re-entered and took over the proceedings, insisting that he would play Henry V. The company responded by beating him up, while Cox screamed "Lay on, Macduff!" in pain.
The Compleat Works owes its origins to spoofs like Beaumont and Fletcher's The Knight of the Burning Pestle, in which a harassed director and his actors are prevented from performing a play by the intrusion of the audience, who demand a different kind of play altogether. The narrative unfolded in fits and starts, with Dingle desperately trying to keep his actors under control, while simultaneously broadcasting to the nation. Meanwhile Cox became more and more extraneous to the proceedings, which only served to increase his frustration. Liz Anstey's production was great fun, incorporating Shakespearean gobbets into its narrative. I look forward to hearing further adventures of Mr. Dingle and his motley crew.