Neverwhere Episode 1 Review

When Richard Mayhew helps an injured girl (Door) his world is thrown into turmoil. He becomes invisible to his friends and has no choice but to retreat into the mysterious world of London Below. Assisted by the charismatic Marquis de Carabas Richard must go on a quest to help the Lady Door find out what happened to her family and hopefully get his own life back in the process. That is if the terrifying Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar don’t kill them all first.

When I heard that there was going to be an adaptation of Neverwhere for the radio I was absolutely thrilled. I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and Neverwhere holds a special place in my heart. And then that extraordinary cast list appeared and Neverwhere went from being a charming sounding curiosity to a hugely anticipated radio event. Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Christopher Lee, Natalie Dormer, Bernard Cribbins, Romola Garai, Sophie Okonedo, Tony Head and David Schofield all together in the same series? Incredible! And Neverwhere is a delight as a novel – it’s a dark, thrilling, sometimes scary and sometimes very funny fantasy. It’s got everything – a proper quest at the heart of it (who doesn’t love a good quest) a damsel in distress who is nevertheless delightfully feisty, a kick ass female bodyguard, a supremely charming male lead who has to rely on the ladies to look after him, beasts to slay, an array of fascinating, deftly drawn supporting characters whose motivations are never entirely clear, genuinely terrifying villains in the shape of the verbose Mr Croup and the brutal Mr Vandemar and an honest to goodness angel.

The world of London Below in Neverwhere is an entire universe which exists just a hairs breath away from our own. As someone who lives in London I loved the novel’s conceit of taking areas we know and putting a disquieting eerie spin on them. Knightsbridge, Blackfriars, Shepherd’s Bush, Earls Court, Angel Islington – all these terms gain new life and new meaning in the world of Neverwhere. You’ll never hear the phrase “Mind the Gap” in quite the same way again.

Neverwhere originally started out life as a TV series devised by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry – a show with some delightful performances (especially from Peter Capaldi as the Angel Islington and Paterson Joseph as the Marquis) whose budget could never match its ambition. Gaiman later adapted the series into his novel. On the radio the budgetry issues which hampered the visuals of the television series don’t exist but adapting Neverwhere into a full cast radio adaptation is a hugely ambitious project. One that Dirk Maggs (who dramatised the piece for radio and designed the sound) and Heather Larmour as director have pulled off in immense style.

Neverwhere episode 1 is an hour long and hurtles along at break neck speed covering the first 130 pages of the book. The audience is thrown into the action like poor old bewildered Richard and never given a second to pause for breath. The dialogue is sharp and funny and condensed from the very best exchanges in the book. There are pleasingly up to date references too. As an adaptation it should please devotees of the book while being suitably accessible that those who have never read the book before won’t be lost.

As it is radio the piece stands or falls on the vocal performances and thankfully they are wonderful. Without a charismatic Richard Mayhew the piece would be completely sunk. So it’s just as well that Richard is played by James McAvoy who carries the piece with completely effortless charm. His Richard is unbelievably likeable which is vital as he is our gateway character into this incredible world.  It’s equally important that we have a damsel in distress that we can root for and Natalie Dormer as Door is just the right mix of vulnerable and feisty. David Harewood exudes dubious charm as the grandstanding Marquis de Carabas – a character who is “a little bit dodgy in the way that rats are a little bit covered in fur”. He sounds exactly like I had imagined the Marquis would sound when reading the book. I can think of no better compliment. Sophie Okonedo is suitably tough and dour as the no-nonsense Amazon of a bodyguard Hunter.

Every story needs a decent villain and in Croup & Vandemar Neverwhere has two genuinely terrifying antagonists.  Mr Croup is all sinister charm, a verbose villain who delights in the wonders of the English language while Mr Vandemar is a gruff man of few words but who really really takes pride in his work – the more violent and messy said work is the better. They’re a delightfully dark comic duo but as Mr Croup points out in a later episode “You must never assume that just because something is funny it is not also dangerous”. Anthony Stewart Head and David Schofield are deeply unsettling in the roles investing Croup and Vandemar with a sense of murderous glee.

Threatening to steal the show from under everyone’s noses however is Bernard Cribbins who is beyond perfect as Old Bailey. It’s a wonderful vocal performance of eccentricity and charm and I loved his character instantly. It’s a testament to how excited people were by the project that you have actors of the stature of Romola Garai popping up to speak very few lines as Richard’s status obsessed fiancee Jessica. And even Neil Gaiman himself has a couple of entertaining cameos as both Mr Figgis the supremely over zealous security guard at Richard’s work and as The Fopp with No Name in London Below.

Dirk Magg’s clever sound design also makes Neverwhere an aural feast. From the theme tune (the soaring stirring sound of a choir singing suitably angelically) to the wet murky sounds of Croup & Vandemar’s lair to the audacious Knight’s Bridge section Neverwhere sounds truly epic. It has been described as a “audio movie” and I can see why. The sound is so rich it pulls you into the compelling narrative and never lets you go. I was struggling to conceive how they could turn one of the most disquieting sections in the book (night falls as Richard crosses Knight’s Bridge) into something that could work on the radio. But all credit to Dirk Maggs for managing it – disembodied taunting voices and muffled groans and cries hinting at something truly terrible and monstrous hiding in the dark waiting for its chance to strike.  The sequence is a triumph.

The opening episode of Neverwhere is an extraordinarily confident piece of radio drama. Fast paced, exciting funny and scary with a cast to die for and an ending that most definitely leaves you wanting more!

Neverwhere continues on Monday 18th March at 6:00 p.m. on BBC Radio 4 Extra with episode 2 – Earl’s Court.