Tony Fyler finds himself in audio hell.
Welcome to Abigail’s Party – as hosted by Sapphire and Steel.
That seems to be the tonality we’re going for here – dark, time-centric shenanigans, with a dash of slapstick and eldritch wailing.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think it’s a marriage that works.
I understand why it should work – Tom Baker’s the master of twisting the normal into the gothic (perhaps, to give the youngster his due, only approached so far by Matt Smith), and while Mary Tamm’s First Romana would have been a great Sapphire to his Steel in this environment, there’s inherently more fun to be had putting Leela in a 1970s dinner party, with Prawn Cocktail Marie Rose and fondue forks all round. Ultimately though, the script from Alan Barnes has the feeling of being written down as an idea, and then madly invented turn by turn to get the story out of increasingly bizarre corners and dead-ends.
There are definitely some solid creepy moments, particularly the reveal of a time-twisting element. The music has a distinctly Sapphire and Steely vibe to it, which certainly helps heighten the creepiness. There’s some great Abigail’s Party-style dialogue at the start, for all it never really lives up to the genius of Mike Leigh’s original (but then, what can?). And yes, there’s some great comedy, with Leela’s straightforward huntress ways at significant odds with the faux-niceties of pretentious 70s dinner parties. But when the script dissolves into dropping bits of house on people, and explaining the godawful creepiness of things like the ‘Green Lady’ painting that was everywhere on 70s walls, while everybody and their adopted mother turns out to be from not around here, or using a glamour to not show their real nature, or to be just thoroughly unpleasant, it all becomes rather too much of a pain to listen to for its own good, and when the eldritch screaming begins (mercifully close to the end), it’s very tempting indeed to skip forward to the conclusion and say you’ve finished it.
Ultimately, the villain doesn’t particularly convince, the way it’s woven into the script feels contrived to take advantage of the 70s setting, and the combination of creepy tone and slapstick comedy feels oddly synthetic and forced, delivering an audio that feels like it’s not about much more than pointing out how naff the 1970s were. Which rather begs the question of whether such a thing needed pointing out, and whether it’s enough to hang even a two-part Doctor Who story on. It also feels more convoluted than it needs to be, which makes an hour’s worth of audio feel as exhausting as three hours of bricklaying, with substantially less to show for it at the end.
In terms of performances, Baker’s better when he’s being mysterious and sombre in this one than when he’s playing the comedy, Louise Jameson delivers pretty much the Leela of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, although in storyline terms, she’s clearly advanced a lot since those days, but the stand-out star of the story, being in herself enough to carry it through until things get too weird and rapid-fire is Katy Wix as Belinda, the ‘Abigail’ of this party, delivering brusqueness, panic over the tiniest issues, unmasked contempt for her husband and a generally unpleasant view of just about everyone. Wix’s performance is responsible for much of the comedy that delivers in the play. Oddly enough, Annette Badland is hardly recognizable as Thelma ‘from over the road,’ and while she’s given some material that could let her go toe to toe with Wix in the comedy stakes, it never really comes across, feeling heavier and more Dennis Wheatley than Mike Leigh.
It’s always the case, when being critical of a story designed to amuse, that you feel the need to defend your sense of humour (or at least your possession of one). To that end, I feel the need to say I love funny Who. One of my favourite Big Finish titles is the frequently overlooked The Auntie Matter, which has a similar intent to Suburban Hell – use an established literary style or theme, and weave a Who story into it. In that case, it was Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels that were the grounding for the story – than which, fluffier, frothier, funnier fare it’s hard to imagine, so the knack was weaving an alien threat story that could counterbalance the style and make the listener still care. There, Big Finish accomplished the balancing act superbly. In Suburban Hell, the balance – for this listener at least – was off, leading to the collapse of interest in either the Who story or the literary homage.
One to buy then? Not for me. Other reviewers have been significantly kinder to the story, having enjoyed it thoroughly. But for me, Suburban Hell stuck closely to its title throughout the whole length of the story. Only the prodding of demons with fondue forks was missing.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk