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How Sting is still keeping listeners spellbound

In his new radio drama, I Must Have Loved You, the musician weaves snatches of his acoustic ballads around a mysterious detective story.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I began a new radio drama co-created by and starring Sting with a sense of bemusement. Why would the frontman of the Police collaborate on a play for Radio 4, in which he is cast as the overbearing father of a young singer who abandons her community in Newcastle to chase her dreams? Isn’t it all a bit prosaic for a rock star? I still don’t know the answer to that question (Sting has taken on a bizarre and eclectic sequence of projects in recent years), but I no longer care – by the end of the 90 minutes, I was spellbound.

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Describing the plot of I Must Have Loved You doesn’t do it justice. It’s a detective story, in a way: a young American woman turns up in the north-east of England to investigate the life of the mysterious musician Jess Doyle (Frances McNamee), who disappeared 19 years ago after moving to California in search of success. Those who knew her take turns to unravel the tale, reminiscing about Jess’s upbringing, her talent and the hearts she broke when she left everyone behind. Their memories are interspersed with haunting snatches of Sting’s songs, reworked as acoustic folk ballads. It’s eerie, almost dreamlike, to hear these familiar melodies sung in otherworldly Geordie voices, eerier still when it transpires that not all the characters offering their testimonies are still alive. Dialogue becomes digressive spoken word that recalls Under Milk Wood more than anything produced by a rock musician.

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According to Sting and his co-writer Michael Chaplin, who both grew up in Newcastle, I Must Have Loved You is about what happens “when you turn your back on the things that made you”. It’s full of loss, nostalgia and bitterness, but there’s hope and love there too. There’s no trace of saccharine sentimentality – it’s too raw for that. And while the play might arc towards a predictable conclusion, the narrative isn’t the point. This is emotion woven around music, peppered with occasional plot points to provide the structure. I don’t think I’ll listen to “Shape Of My Heart” in quite the same way again.

I Must Have Loved You
BBC Radio 4,
19 March, 2.45pm

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global