The Ventriloquist’s Dummy: A Courageous Approach to Belly Problems



I CAN’T think of a more bizarre topic for radio drama than irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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

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

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

Jess (played by Christine Bottomly) has a longtime partner, but no children. They don’t really get along anymore. He accuses her of being neurotic and self-obsessed. Increasingly isolated, Jess buys a broken ventriloquist doll from a flea market and calls in a therapist. The two help her open up and talk about herself.

So far so good, but repeatedly interrupting the story of Jess, her talkative gut, played by Meera Syal, and Eurycles (Sanjeev Bhaskar), a gastromancer from ancient Greece. The two want to make Jess’ story their own and help her build her story.

Gastromancers interpreted the sounds and signs of the belly – divination by ventriloquism. This ancient practice seems less far-fetched today, as we accept that our stomachs reflect our emotional state and work in tandem with our mind.

Jess’s therapist suggests that she may not be dealing with something from her past that has upset her. Jess is adamant it isn’t, until she remembers a devastating earthquake in Turkey in 1999.

It takes a bit of getting used to Dalton’s documentary drama, 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, 2:15 p.m., March 2



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