The Doctor Who Ratings Guide: By Fans, For Fans

Big Finish
The Masquerade of Death
A Benny Audio Adventure

Author Stewart Sheargold Cover image
Released 2005
Cover Adrian Salmon

Starring: Lisa Bowerman as Professor Bernice Summerfield

Synopsis: Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, and welcome to another in our exciting series of adventures with the witty, irreverent and courageous heroine, Professor Bernice Summerfield. In tonight's story our daring adventuress and her sidekick, Adrian, find themselves imprisoned in a crumbling palace in the Prison Season of Spring, replete with an imperious queen and prissy but rather sweet AI gaoler.


A surreal nightmare! by Joe Ford 25/6/05

Sheer brilliance from beginning to end and another sterling example of why the Bernice Summerfield range is a million times more consistent and enjoyable than the Doctor Who one. I admit there will be people out there who won't enjoy this sort of thing, but I adored it. The only criticism I really have is that it had to end.

Surrealism is dangerous idea to mess about unless you are absolutely sure of what you are doing. Doctor Who had its attempts and some were very successful because they threw some truly out there ideas at the audience as though they were the norm (The Celestial Toymaker, The Mind Robber) and others were less so because the scripts weren't completely committed to the wacky concepts, far more interested in the drama of the situation than exploring the madness of what is being presented (Kinda's best scenes feature the inside of Tegan's mind but the rest is a bit dull, The Happiness Patrol is garish and colourful and features a huge monster made out of liquorice allsorts and yet still wants to be taken seriously). Benny has had her own splashes with the surreal in her short audio life, debuting her series with a delicious pantomime drama that was full of great jokes (Oh No It Isn't!) and spring-boarding her third season with the insane acid shopping trip (The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy). There is something wonderfully unconstrained about the Benny series that allows for these oddball stories to be presented with less fuss and more humour than the Doctor Who range. Benny herself is something of a pantomime character, full of hot air and humour and yet afforded far more depth than anything you will see on the stage thanks to Lisa Bowerman's stunning portrayal and some clever writing.

What is so good about The Masquerade of Death that not even her previous two surrealist stories were brave enough to attempt is its ability to throw the listener in at the deep end, opening the story in its madcap environment with no explanation as to how Benny and Adrian got there. You are left with a huge question mark over your head for the first half of the play, totally at a loss to what the hell happened to dump the two friends in such a playfully sadistic setting.

The story plays by its own rules and expects you to catch on quick. Linear narrative? No way, the story hops about all over the place, skipping and switching scenes, slowing down and speeding up events and even leaping out of the story at regular intervals. Solid characterisation? Nope, the characters change motive, voices and faces throughout, not even Benny and Adrian are immune. A setting that you can understand? Erm, not really, the story thrusting Benny into one prison to another, with little stop offs at a grand evening ball, a court and a fencing parlour! Unlike all the previous attempts at this sort of thing Masquerade of Death really tries to weird you out and leave you uncertain how to cope with the barrage of madness coming at you. And it works! This was the least predictable audio I have heard in a while, with nothing safe, not even the dialogue (which alternates between regular and rhyme) or the sound design (which uses every audio trick in the book to freak you out).

Stewart Sheargold has written a delightful script that should please all but the most conservative of Benny fans. The answers do come eventually and I was on tenterhooks listening to every line of quickfire dialogue so I could finally figure out what the hell was going on. And of course it all makes perfect, if nonsensical, sense in its own wacky way.

John Ainsworth is fast becoming my favourite Big Finish director since every time he turns up on the schedules there is a little something extra in the production that the usual Gary Russell ones (that's all the rest then!) lack. Storm of Angels was a treat on the ears, one of the best releases yet and the overly talky Snake Head was salvaged by Ainsworth's dramatic direction. Here he gets to try something completely new and challenging and he is more than up to the task, creating a play that is riotously funny, breathlessly exciting and easy to follow despite the confusing script. He never lets the exhilaration let up, jumping from one bold and colourful set piece to another. He prompts some fantastic performances from his tight cast and by the sound of the production you would never have a clue that only five people were involved, the crowd scenes being particularly convincing.

I should give up handing out plaudits to Lisa Bowerman as at about this time in each of her audios I slavish much attention upon how brilliant she is as Benny Summerfield. Masquerade of Death features one of her best performances yet, primarily because she is so wet-your-pants funny and really jumps into the spirit of the thing. I don't think this actress could ever disappoint me. It also features Harry Myers' best turn as Adrian Wall, getting to have the most fun with his character since Green Eyes Monsters. I adored his spin as the King, all English manners and eloquence, a far cry from his growling, bestial Adrian. The guest actors were all highly memorable, giving one hundred percent to the story, the sort of enthusiastic, loud and OTT performances that punctuated the best of Doctor Who on the telly. And whilst I shouldn't single anyone out, Robin Sebastian's Player is already one of my all time favourite audio baddies, with a delicious line in acidic put downs!

It would be hard to choose a favourite scene. I would want to mention the hilarious trial of Bernice Summerfield where she is accused of seducing the King or the wonderful scene-stealing Queen having a mid life crisis in pure melodramatic fashion but then I would be denying one of my all time favourite audio scenes yet. As Benny and the Player reveal the truth behind the play whilst sword fighting and singing hilariously with each other... absolute genius!

My compliments to the makers of the Bernice Summerfield range, it just keeps getting better and better. The news about two more years of adventures with our intrepid adventuress is the icing on the cake.

Completely insane but practically perfect.