It's easy enough to winnow through a couple of plays and find extracts that fit a broad theme. (Such as the fairly open-ended Streets.) The hard part is taking those extracts and stitching them together into a seamless, emotionally articulate narrative.
Yet that is exactly what Wireless Mystery Theatre has done. Streets, which debuts at the first of Belfast City Council’s Literary Lunchtimes in the Ulster Hall, takes a handful of scenes, some basic, but cunning, special effects and a few street songs and creates an entirely new thing.
Not that WMT have filed the serial numbers off and claimed it as their own. They acknowledge to the various writers – Louis McNeice, Ciaran Carson, Cathal O’Byrne and WR Rodgers – that feature in the production. At the same time, however, Streets is a distinct creation that can stand independently from its disparate origins.
What it becomes is a sprawling family saga. It follows the lives of two socially divergent families, one piously Presbyterian ('It was a sad little Presbyterian mouth') and the other determinedly Irish-speaking ('I suppose I must have picked [English] up off the street by the time I was three or four.'), who are each raising a young boy in Belfast.
With Belfast as a distinct third character of its own, the story cuts between the lives of the two boys. Other characters make brief forays into the limelight – a finagling pawn-shop owner and a canny coach driver, for instance – but the focus always returns to the two families.
Each is note-perfectly observed, raising chuckles from the audiences as they recognize elements from their own childhoods. ‘Can I have the deaths, Adam?’ the Presbyterian mother asks her husband primly, as he reads the paper. Her son observes that this is how she ‘stays in touch with life’. Quite a few people see their families in that one.
Children’s sing-song rhymes and quick bursts of guitar music – including a wry tribute to the apparently eternally late Belfast Trams – bridge any gaps in the narrative effectively. Although anyone not from Belfast might draw a blank on the etymology of the rhymes. It doesn’t detract from enjoying the performance, however, just niggles afterwards. ‘Hurry up and burn her legs, burn her legs, burn her legs.’ Why? Was that misheard? It seems rather mean.
There is no plot as such, just a series of vigenettes. It conveys the sense of Belfast, of the streets and place and people. There is a sense of time passing, of the characters moving at more or less the same pace through a day, but no distinct story.
Any WMT production would, of course, be incomplete without sound effects. Pretty much any sound effect can be purchased on the internet now, and played back through an MP3 player. Yet WMT lack the heart, the sheer playful glee, of tooting horns with one hand while manning a manual mixer with the other. The WMT take it so seriously – as they should – that it just makes it all the more fun to watch.
No-one is ever going to argue that the authors whose work contributed are anything but masters of their craft. However, it is, perhaps, good to be reminded of exactly why that is. It would have been nice to have more information about the authors and the particular works used for Streets. but perhaps next time they perform it, they will oblige.
Streets is a fun way to spend a lunchtime, and a strong addition to the WMT canon of work.
The next Literary Lunchtime is a rehearsed reading of Ahab's Daughter by Lisa Keogh on February 22 at 1pm. The Wireless Mystery Theatre will also be performing The Wireless Room April 11-13 as part of the Titanic Belfast Festival.