Pulling Faces by Helen Goldwyn is the second in the new Drama Showcase series from Big Finish. These hour-long audio plays feature actors and production personnel familiar from some of the company’s other ranges but are outside of their usual genre boundaries – these are more like BBC 4 Afternoon Plays, only with stronger language and better production values.
It follows on from Katy Manning’s Not A Well Woman and like that production it also began as a one-woman stage show and takes as its subject someone who, with marriages behind them and grown up children no longer to support, looks back on their lives analysing its highs and lows – all on the eve of undergoing surgery. But whereas Manning’s self-penned work was a virtuoso solo piece, this has been turned by Goldwyn, director Nigel Fairs and star Louise Jameson into a full cast comedy drama. Jameson plays Joanne Taylor, a media celeb who once hosted a TV makeover show but who, many years later, is now working on radio being considered by the powers that be to look too old to front a TV show. The opening scene is certainly anything but glamorous as we find Joanne with her head in the toilet as she tries to sober up and get over from a hangover. She is on the cusp of her 55th birthday and not too happy about it. She is insecure about her looks and the impact this is having on her career prospects. In fact this she is being battered on all sides for apparently having ‘let herself go’ a bit – her agent (played by Fairs) says he won’t represent her unless she goes under the knife, her aerobics instructor is unsympathetic and even her builder gives her an almighty backhanded compliment:
I’m used to seeing you a bit more, well, dollied up than that … more like you used to look on that TV show … I reckon that’s brave that is … letting people see how you really look, knackered and crap like everybody else.
Only Joanne’s daughter (played by Goldwyn) seems to be against the idea of her mother having surgery – but clearly doesn’t understand the pressure she is under. If this seems heavy and depressing, it isn’t and for the most part succeeds in being funny and heartwarming. Some of the humour can be a bit unsubtle in places, such as having a surgeon named ‘Mr Butcher’ for instance, but as played in a nice cameo by Colin Baker the scene is actually both funny and just a little bit queasy-making as the allure of the promises offered by the surgical alternative is palpably conveyed. Joanne after all isn’t being paranoid when it comes to media and how it represents aging, as anyone will know who followed the case of Miriam O’Reilly, the former presenter of the BBC’s Countryfile who recently won an age discrimination claim after producers fired her for not doing something about her wrinkles.
Played mostly for laughs, this is none the less a frequently affecting piece thanks to a rich and nuanced performance by Jameson who can, with the slightest change in inflection or the subtlest of pauses, convey the fears that run deep in a woman finally reaching maturity in more than just years. The ending is undeniably a bit contrived as about half a dozen plotlines collide at Joanne’s 55th birthday party, but it avoids tying up too many loose ends leaving the conclusion pleasingly, and plausibly, open-ended.