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On the eve of war

JOBY. By Stan Barstow. Radio 4, May 3, 2.30-4.00pm.

Joby the novel is 33 years old, and shows no signs of ageing. Stan Barstow's tale still reads true, which must have eased Diana Griffiths's task in dramatising it.

This gripping radio version is faithful to the book. The narrative avoids voice-over and manages to dramatise fully the intense feelings of 12-year-old Joby Weston as he experiences a painful, revealing summer before he goes to grammar school.

The date is 1939, the setting Yorkshire, but the story has a simple universality about it. Joby (played with spirit by Olivier Peace) is worried. His mother goes into hospital for some unexplained operation, which he suspects is breast cancer. While he successfully fights his own daily battles with the foes of his age, the adult world causes him pain and bewilderment. He tries to visit his mother in hospital but cannot find her and, in a moving scene, all the pressing nightmares about her illness overwhelm him and he runs away from the hospital.

Meanwhile, his Dad (subtly played by Jim Carter) has been canoodling with a nubile but gormless young relative, Mona, and Joby is trying to come to terms with witnessing a sexual encounter involving the sister of a friend.

His beloved Mam returns home, only to walk into a domestic eruption when Mona confesses the dalliance. We hear Joby's anxious, shallow breathing as he overhears the ferocious family row downstairs. Eventually he plays his part in restoring equilibrium, but it's clear that neither he, nor his parents' marriage, will ever be the same again.

This production will be immensely useful to those studying the book and an excellent introduction for those who haven't read it.

There are just two minor quibbles: why didn't the producers drop the irrelevant scene where Joby refuses to read a letter for an old lady? And couldn't we have had a little more anxiety in Gillian Bevan's otherwise convincing portrayal of Joby's Mum?

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