The short version of this review is simple: buy this now and listen to it. It’s one of the best pieces of audio drama, if not the best, you’re going to hear this year, with everyone involved – from writer Paul Magrs to the regular cast, the guest cast, director Jamie Anderson, and all involved with post-production – bringing their A game. There’s an inexorability about the impending tragedy that will make you almost ignore the cliffhangers, and just go straight through as one 100-minute play – you become that invested in the characters Magrs has created.
When you think of a Peter Davison historical, chances are the Monty Python-esque over the top antics of The King’s Demons will come to mind. This couldn’t be further from that. This is on a par with Hartnell-era historicals, notably The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve.
Magrs spends time establishing the social order, and the inherent fallacies and difficulties that fomented ordinary people into coming together on that day in August 1819. Having studied the period (albeit nearly forty years ago!), I knew what was coming, and Magrs does an excellent job showing not telling – the scene in Hurley’s factory is good Doctor Who; the aftermath is what makes it great drama. Many may think that Magrs is exaggerating the way in which the militia behaved; if anything, I suspect he’s downplayed some of it. And frankly, seeing that side of human nature is more frightening than any death-dealing pepperpot (sorry, Nick!) will ever be…
Nigel Fairs’ sound design and music are some of the best we’ve had in recent time too: the score is truly haunting, with a solo voice and minor keys used to great effect. The placement of the characters within the scenes is also done unusually, given the audio equivalent at times of a POV camera, and the massacre itself is given the weight it deserves, moving from the ordinary people (and, of course for good dramatic purposes, some of the TARDIS crew) caught up in the fighting, to the yeomanry. It’s not done with the melodramatics of a Game of Thrones scene; Fairs has somehow managed to put us right at the heart of events so that the panic and the rising desperation are palpable.
I really hope that the next story to feature this crew will pick up on the effect that events have had, particularly on Nyssa. We don’t need every story to be this dark or intense, but The Peterloo Massacre is a fantastic reminder of Doctor Who’s potential to put us inside historical events.
Verdict: Simply excellent all round. 10/10