Samantha Grierson’s latest audio drama, How to Drop a Piano, tackles some pretty meaty themes with a lightness of touch that characterises much of the author’s earlier work. In just an hour, we touch on gender dysphoria, autism, living in the shadow of a deceased, domineering father, unfulfilled ambition and even the spirit world! There’s a lot to unpick, so let’s kick off.
Margaret (Jane Asher) runs a struggling B&B in her former family home near Stratford-upon-Avon. A new guest, Ryver – pronounced River and played by newcomer Mabz Beet – pitches up to learn 60 pages of lines in preparation for a truly terrible play, and meets permanent lodger, skint soap actor Libby Lentil (Lesley Joseph).
Unsurprisingly, given that Grierson is a lesbian who received a diagnosis of autism well into adulthood, Ryver is both trans and autistic, and it was heartening that both their gender identity and neurodiversity, while intrinsic to the character, were not in themselves an issue for either Margaret or Libby. We know that life can be difficult for trans people and for people with autism, and it’s right that these challenges are examined in drama, but sometimes the cause of minorities is best served not by portraying them as beleaguered, embattled victims facing a world of prejudice, but as ordinary people who are just getting on with their lives.
Audio dramas, unlike theatre, TV or film, cannot give the audience visual clues (obvs), and I would have liked to see Beet trusted to portray Ryver’s neurodiversity without having to refer directly to their condition on at least two occasions. In Crocodile, one of the author’s previous audio plays, Heather Peace’s lead character is also autistic but this emerges through Peace’s performance rather than being directly flagged. I have no doubt that Beet, who delivers an outstandingly subtle and nuanced performance, could have emulated Peace without having to shout his condition from the rooftops. As you may have guessed, I am not a fan of unnecessary exposition, and I also have to question whether we needed such a fulsome explanation of what a ouija board does and how it works.
A basque and a trilby.
There are some cracking lines: I jotted down a few but one of my favourites has to be Ryver’s “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a non-creepy mannequin, especially when it’s wearing a basque and a trilby”. It’s hard to disagree.
Margaret’s B&B is haunted by the spirit of her dead father – not in the sense of an actual ghost, but because his memory underpins almost everything about her life. The house is full of pianos (dead dad had been a piano teacher) and other paternal detritus that Margaret cannot bring herself to throw away. Are the pianos a metaphor for her father himself: always there, a brooding presence reminding her of a stern upbringing where she was forbidden from pursuing her love of swimming in favour of learning to play the piano?
Lesley Joseph’s Libby, energised by meeting Ryver, is the catalyst for Margaret’s decision to finally try to move out of her father’s long shadow and, for me, the best of the dialogue came with the snappy interplay between all three leads. Joseph, of course, has form in being one of three very different characters from the classic 90s sitcom Birds of a Feather, and it was a joy to witness that the years have not dimmed her natural sense of comic timing. While it can be argued that Libby is the least interesting of the main protagonists, she is the glue that holds the action together, providing the impetus for both plot and character development.
How to Drop a Piano does not take itself too seriously, and that is no bad thing. We live in an age of finger-jabbing polemicism where issues of the day are often discussed with grim-faced self-righteousness tinged with intolerance. Grierson eschews this approach, preferring instead to engage the audience through whip-smart dialogue, tight plotting and stand-out performances, allowing the piece to breathe and, in so doing, delivering an hour of highly entertaining, thought-provoking drama which I highly recommend.