William Shakespeare certainly spun some brilliant tales, and 10 of the best-known ones are retold here, including Twelfth Night, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. They are sparky and atmospheric, with a spirited narration that avoids being over-dramatic. For example, after Romeo killed Tybalt - the "roaring boy and fighting cock" - the narrator conveys, through his short breaths, Romeo's horror as he realises the enormity of his crime. He communicates Juliet's rising panic, as her parents insist on the marriage with Paris, through the pace of her protestations.
Geraldine McCaughrean's phrasing is a faithful echo of the original - Romeo and Juliet "rebuilt heaven out of the ruins of the day" in their brief time together before Romeo's banishment - and the stories are also laced with quotations which give the full flavour of Shakespeare's language. Without losing their dramatic thrust, the narratives of Julius Caesar and Henry V clarify the plays' historical and political backgrounds, which often perplex students.
With the clear explanations of the characters prefacing each play, they are particularly useful for key stage 3, but would also make excellent introductions to Shakespeare at any level - either before studying a particular play or in providing background awareness of other plays. It is a serious oversight by the producers not to include a listing of the plays on the inlay card, telling listeners which side each play is on.
Pygmalion By George Bernard Shaw (with full cast) Naxos AudiobooksTwo hours, 37mins Price: cassettes pound;9.99; CDs pound;13.99
Pygmalion can be a difficult play for GCSE English literature students who are only familiar with the romanticisation of "My Fair Lady".
Premiered on the West End stage nearly a century ago, Pygmalion is not a rags-to-riches fairy tale, but a dramatised debate of ideas. George Bernard Shaw was criticising the values of the middle-classes who judged by appearances, and was presenting his arguments on phonetics and speech. The epilogue alone - with its strident expression of his ideas on society and women - makes for fascinating study.
All this can be hard for students to digest on the page - particularly if Shaw's epilogue is included - but performed here with a full cast, Shaw's wit and vitality shine through. Lucy Whybrow's Eliza elicits the full range of emotions from the audience - from pity and irritation to admiration - and her display of tutored vowels brings the page into vibrant life.
Anton Lesser as Professor Higgins is superb. Vigorously intellectual, he is obtuse and blind in relation to Eliza. Students struggling with the didacticism of the printed word will find this production refreshingly entertaining.
Smart Pass English Literature (audio guides) Six titles aimed at key stages 3 and 4 Two titles aimed at key stages 2, 3 and 4 Price: cassettes pound;16.99; CDs pound;19.99 (for each title) Between 2hrs, 55mins and 4hrs, 20mins Tel: 01483 237275 www.smartpass.co.uk
There is undoubtedly a wealth of useful material in these guides, but to avoid the audio-lecture, the producers frequently use a question-and-answer format, which I'm not sure will appeal to listeners. For example: a student questions William Shakespeare on the sonnet "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day", in the audio guide Pre-Twentieth Century Poetry, and the Bard rewards a correct interpretation of a line with "Thou hast it right".
Students capable of appreciating a detailed interpretation of this sonnet are likely to find this approach patronising. Other presentations of material are more successful. The dramatisations of A Kestrel for a Knave and scenes from The Mayor of Casterbridge fully exploit the audio medium. They are convincing and, with the accompanying commentaries, they do help students to appreciate the texts.
There are some interesting approaches, such as comparing the published ending to Great Expectations with a different version, which Charles Dickens favoured. However, in Shakespeare the Works we are told that Oliver Cromwell was a "fundamentalist" who closed the theatres in the 1640s and who "lost his head, literally" 20 years later. Parliament closed the theatres; Cromwell was a Puritan and not nearly as radical in religion as his contemporaries - and he died in his bed. Unfortunately, so many errors in a few sentences destroy the listener's faith in the producers'