29 August 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy

Now this is more what I was expecting. On the surface, The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy is quite a light, frothy adventure story. Look a little deeper though and you'll find it's been planned meticulously.

Arriving at the Gigamarket, the largest department store in all the Galaxy, under the pretence of excavating latrines in the car park, Benny's after a little retail therapy. It's no wonder given everything that's going on in her life at the moment. Most notable if course is that Professor Summerfield now has a son, Peter. What she craves at the moment though is a little - make that a lot - of shoe shopping to make her feel herself again.

And this plays out rather amusingly and entertainingly for a short while, after Benny meets over-familiar manager Keelor. But of course her day is soon interrupted, and not just by the fact that Adrian's credit chip, which she "borrowed", bounces. The Borvali, a race once at war with the Gigamarket's owners and now confined to their own section of the planet have begun reappearing, along with soldiers a hundred years out of time. This really is quite a clever plot, playing with time to get writer Paul Ebbs' message across.

This is a really fun play from the outset. It's populated with lots of larger-than-life characters, such as Joggon and Keelor, who complete the overall feel of the piece. The revelations that come in the second half might not add up completely (if Keelor is such a fan of Benny why did he invite her for the time when he'd rigged the shopping centre to explode?) but there's a lot to enjoy. Most amiable of all is the moment where Benny amusingly saves the day by giving the bomb a good old thump.

If this is the kind of thing I can expect from the Benny range, then I certainly look forward to more. The universe she inhabits is deliriously enjoyable and the characters around her equally so. Personal assistant and porter Joseph is a particular highlight, and I hope he appears in future stories. The main character's attitudes to people we haven't yet met, such as Irving Braxiatel and father of her child (it's complicated) Adrian Wall, also make me hope it isn't too long until we meet them in person.

What a great cast director Alistair Lock has assembled. Toby Longworth is simply fantastic as Joggon, ensuring every line is hilarious. Keelor, as voiced by David Benson, is a delight too. His adopted slightly old-fashioned, authoritative manner suits the part as written very well. Steven Allen as Keelor's grandfather Tarband contributes a subtler comedy to the story, delivering the straight attitude of a hardened soldier but with undertones of the character's irony neatly sewn into the performance. And of course Lisa Bowerman and Steven Wickham, as Benny and Joseph, were excellent. Bowerman is a flawless Summerfield, and inhabits her entirely believably. Nearly every "boing" from Wickham got a laugh from me too. Every scene in The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy is thoroughly enjoyable thanks in part to the commitment, energy and creativity of this small cast.

Lock and Steve Johnson have done a wonderful job with the post production too. Even though this was only released thirteen years ago, technology has come on leaps and bounds since then, allowing more than just two tracks for editing, and a microphone for each performer, rather than a total of two. The way the pair negotiate the sound design and music duties, particularly under such limited and strenuous is impressive, given how well it turned out. The theme is great, and the stings between scenes help punctuate the story perfectly.

All in all then this is a great story and I'm really glad I started Bernice's original Big Finish adventures here. It's not quite a romp, as there's a serious heart to this, with a commentary on consumerism, but it never feels heavy handed or overbearing. This is probably one of the most singly-enjoyable productions from Big Finish, with one liner after one liner, but it never trips over into farce. With a great contribution from all - but most notably Paul Ebbs, Lisa Bowerman and Toby Longworth - Greatest Shop is a delight, and far better than its account in Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story might suggest.

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