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The Ventriloquist’s Dummy: a gutsy take on tummy trouble

The stomach is celebrated for its eloquence in Amanda Dalton’s imaginative drama-documentary

25 February, 2021 — By Lucy Popescu

I CAN’T think of a more bizarre subject for radio drama than Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

In Amanda Dalton’s imaginative take, The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, the gut is celebrated for its eloquence – “it tells us how we feel”.

Jess, 40 years old, lives in Manchester and works in a library. She has a problem with her digestion, an undiagnosed condition that has made her ill for years. No one seems to know what’s wrong. It’s like “being a stranger in my skin”.

Travel is a nightmare and she feels tired and achy most of the time, but when she ends up in hospital all they can tell her is that she has IBS, a common affliction that affects the lower part of the gut. There’s no specific treatment and symptoms can change – as the consultant irritatingly suggests: it’s “a gut reaction” to something.

Jess (played by Christine Bottomly) has a long-term partner, but no children. They don’t really get on any more. He accuses her of being neurotic and self-obsessed. Increasingly isolated, Jess buys a broken ventriloquist’s doll from a junk shop and enlists the help of a therapist. Both help her to open up and talk about herself.

So far so good, but repeatedly interrupting Jess’s narrative are her garrulous gut, played by Meera Syal, and Eurycles (Sanjeev Bhaskar), a gastromancer from ancient Greece. Both want to own Jess’s story and help build her narrative.

Gastromancers would interpret the sounds and signs of the belly – divination by ventriloquism. This ancient practice sounds less outlandish today, given we accept that our stomachs reflect our emotional state and work in tandem with our minds.

Jess’s therapist suggests she may not be facing up to something in her past that upset her. Jess is adamant this is not the case, until she recalls a devastating earthquake in Turkey in 1999.

It takes a little time to warm to Dalton’s drama-documentary, but stick with it. The Ventriloquist’s Dummy proves an imaginative take on IBS, the history of ventriloquism, the relationship between mind and body and the mysterious wisdom of the gut.

Radio 4, 2.15pm, March 2

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