Suspense!

Wireless Mystery Theatre perform classic CBS radio plays - including the ad breaks - in faultless period style

Some people believe that radio drama is best. Better than movies, the stage or the idiot lantern in the corner of our living rooms. Radio can engage an audience like no other medium, and the only limit to our enjoyment is our own imagination. Voices, sound effects, music, even silence can be used to transport a listener into the heart of a story. Most importantly, though, we – the listener – complete the picture in our heads.

Why, then, would anyone want to watch a radio play being performed on stage? The answer is provided by Wireless Mystery Theatre’s wonderfully evocative presentation in Auntie Annie’s (an unusual but effective venue) of two radio plays first aired by CBS in the highly successful Suspense! series of the 1940’s, entitled 'Sorry, Wrong Number' and 'The Thing in the Window'.

The Wireless Mystery Theatre was formed in 2010 by Aislinn Clarke, Nick Boyle and Reggie Chamberlain-King, and their first performance (a recreation of The Mercury Theatre version of The 39 Steps) took place in the No Alibis tent during the 2010 Open House Festival. Since then they have held successful performances of Orson Welles’s takes on A Christmas Carol and War of the Worlds in various venues in Belfast.

The cast, musicians and Foley Artists (those who do the sound effects) take to the stage dressed in period costume: from suits and ties for the guys, to A-line skirts, matt red lipstick and twinset and pearls for the dames. The opening chords of the great Bernard Hermann’s Suspense! theme are played on keyboard and accordion, then Chamberlain-King steps to a microphone and intones: 'Suspense!'

What follows is a perfect recreation of two plays (plus adverts) from the highly successful radio drama series broadcast by CBS in America during the Golden Age of Radio, which contracted some of the biggest names in theatre and the movies to write and perform its shows.

The plays are acted out as they would have been performed in a radio studio of the day, with the cast and crew of the Wireless Mystery Theatre acting out the parts of the actors on the show: scripts in hand, brylcreem in hair, and sound effects galore.

‘Sorry, Wrong Number’ was one of the series’ earliest successes, and its single most popular episode. Written (as is ‘The Thing in the Window’) by Louise Fletcher, it features Cathy Quinn as actress Agnes Moorehead, who plays Mrs Stevenson, a well-to-do wife confined to bed by illness, who overhears a murder plot on a crossed telephone connection but is unable to persuade anyone to investigate.

As the tension builds, Mrs Stevenson becomes ever more desperate and panic stricken, and the audience is held in thrall until, as promised, the solution to the mystery is withheld 'until the last possible moment'. Threaded throughout the tension of the story is a dark humour performed with perfect timing and consummate ease by the cast, particularly Elizabeth McGeown as a smiley-voiced but infuriatingly unhelpful telephone operator: some things never change.

We’re then treated to a series of hilarious ad breaks of the period: from Brylcreem ('a little dab’ll do ya') to Camel Cigarettes ('More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette'), before the second story ‘The Thing in the Window’ commences.

The story features Nick Boyle as Joseph Cotton as Martin Ames, an out-of-work actor who is convinced he can see a corpse sitting in a high-back chair in the apartment opposite his own. Try as he might, he can't get anyone to believe him. Obsessed with finding the phantom body, he becomes an increasing annoyance to his neighbours.

Again the cast perform impeccably, particularly Jack Geary, who plays two parts (a janitor and a cop) simultaneously: at one point he ends up arguing with himself – which makes for wonderful theatre. Bronagh McCrudden also shines as spinster Vivian Landis.

Next on the agenda for the Wireless Mystery Theatre is an Edgar Allan Poe double bill at No Alibis Bookstore in May. I urge you to go along: it could be the best thing you’ll hear (and see) all year.