Wireless Mystery Theatre's A Christmas Carol
Reggie Chamberlain-King of Wireless Mystery Theatre on reprising Dickens' story for the Island Arts Centre
On The Air Productions (Wireless Mystery Theatre) is Northern Ireland's only audio theatre company, producing plays for live performance as well as broadcast.
At the core of the company, there are three people: Aislinn Clarke is our artistic director; I work as creative producer – a title we borrowed from elsewhere and have not yet worked out what it means – and I also write, act and play music; and Nicholas Boyle is our director and composer, who acts to boot and puts on an excellent, stentorious Dickensian voice.
A Christmas Carol was our second ever production, first produced in 2010. We performed that first run in the snow at the Lockkeeper’s Inn, in the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University and two sold-out shows in the Black Box in Belfast.
It was a funny little production with a small team of actors, one singer, and the whole score played on a mixture of toy pianos, ukuleles, chord organs, recorders and melodicas. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come was played by a plastic tube that, when whirled in a circle above one’s head, created an eerie, high-pitched squeal.
By December 2011, we were asked to perform it in the Ulster Hall, and we had graduated to a string quartet, with harpist and a three-part harmony trio, the Mystery Sisters. We then took the show to Derry, Bray and Dublin as well and, in Belfast, we out sold Tori Amos in the same venue!
Last year, we performed A Christmas Carol in the Ulster Hall again, as a BBC Radio Ulster live outside broadcast, which was broadcast on Christmas Eve. It was amazing for us to have a thousand people singing along to the carols in the play, and also to be able to tune into the radio and hear the play being broadcast again on Christmas Eve. That was a highlight and a particularly proud moment for us.
This year, we had hoped to take a break from it, because we are so busy in the New Year with Brief Encounter at the Grand Opera House in Belfast in February, but we were approached by the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn and by venues in Bray and Waterford to reprise the production, and it is such a fun show to do that we had to agree.
Some of the scripts that we produce at WMT are extant, complete transcriptions from old-time radio shows, whether American classics by Orson Welles and Arch Obler or old Northern Irish pieces by WR Rodgers, Louis McNeice or Denis Johnston. Others are written in the style of those old-time radio horror shows, like Suspense, Lights Out, Weird Circle.
The 1970 musical film version of A Christmas Carol with Albert Finney as Scrooge and music by Leslie Bricusse is an adaptation of Dickens' story well worth a watch; Aislinn and I watch it together every year.
Finney plays Scrooge perfectly: crooked, withered, his body showing the twists and gnarls of his soul, so that, as he softens, his body straightens out and he seems to lose years. That’s something that we took for our own version: we start off with Scrooge, who I play, as a monster, so that he can grow human line by line.
A Christmas Carol is a pantomime without the clichés. It features a cast of grotesque characters, with a moral lesson at the end. Every year, Scrooge gladly offers himself up as a sacrifice, so that we may all learn the lesson anew. Scrooge is wonderfully drawn – his backstory, slowly revealed – so that, after initially being shocked by his uncaring nature, the audience begin to care for him. It is a great feat of characterisation.
Generally speaking, there is always a very positive response to our Andrews Sisters style trio, the Mystery Sisters, who manage to do both the tight 1940s radio jingle harmonies and swing songs, like 'Sleigh Ride', as well as the voices of Tiny Tim, Martha Cratchitt, Scrooge’s lost love Belle, and various Victorian Cockney street urchins. All with aplomb, naturally.
Our version also benefits from Sonia Abercrombie as the beguiling narrator. The convention is to cast a deep, honey-voiced gent – Orson Welles has played the part – but, with Sonia’s light, ethereal voice, we have the story as if told through rumours and hearsay on the street of Victorian London. She gives it a great sense of things imagined behind closed doors, because Scrooge’s change is a private change, but here made public.
We've found that our musical version of A Christmas Carol appeals to people of all ages. Children love to have stories told to them, and they are fascinated by all the strange instruments and utensils used to make the sound effects. They tend to be more accustomed to using their imaginations than the adults.
Older people enjoy the rush of nostalgia – not necessarily for the 1940s, but for a time when radio was the focus of family time spent together, for the songs, for the products and places mentioned in the ads. Then there is the simple delights of the ever-popular commercial break – everyone loves commercials for cigarettes! But, more than any of that, there is the opportunity to be moved by an enduring tale.
Even three years on from our formation, we are surprised at how well people respond to the idea of what we do with Wireless Mystery Theatre. Whether it is our work performing old-time radio plays or our more contemporary work using audio illusions and hidden speakers, people just love to hear the human voice and good music – two components that are at the heart of most of our productions.
They listen more keenly. They are free to use their imaginations. Our style asks a little work of the audience, but it’s fun work – it allows them to be creative while listening. And with the old-time plays, there is an extra element: on one hand, listening to the story as it unfolds, while also watching the story on stage – the story of what’s happening in the studio: what the actors do, what the musicians do, how the sound effects are made.
But, for every person watching intently at the foley table, there is another who tells us afterward that they listened to the whole thing with their eyes closed, just taking it all in. We have an exceptional cast of talented actors that can leap from one voice to another with ease and populate a whole world of strange, wonderful characters. And A Christmas Carol is the perfect story to loose yourself in at this time of year.
Wireless Mystery Theatre bring A Christmas Carol to the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on December 14.