A Christmas Carol
Wireless Mystery Theatre perform a period radio play of Dickens' beloved story
The Wireless Mystery Theatre have been recreating 1940s radio plays in various venues for some time now. This latest festive venture entices a sizable audience to trek through the cold, rainy night to the Ulster Hall in Belfast to witness the WMT in action.
They are rewarded not only with WMT’s rendering of A Christmas Carol, but also with hand bells, chamber music and a selection of 40s Christmas songs, courtesy of the Mystery Sisters. An introduction by the venue's outreach and educational director reveals that the Ulster Hall’s connection with Dickens and his classic tale of greed and repentance goes back quite a bit.
The great author visited the venue in 1867 and 1869, reading from David Copperfield on this very stage, apparently largely from memory. He also treated Belfast audiences to A Christmas Carol while it was still being edited, so locals got a sneak preview of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and Ebenezer Scrooge.
Dickens surprised Belfast once when he suddenly disappeared, only to return with a horse and cart he had bought, and which he insisted must be shipped home to London. This may look like the sort of extravagant demand a superstar on tour would make, but Dickens also insisted on subsidised tickets for the poor. In the 1860s, Belfast notables rubbed shoulders with factory workers in the Ulster Hall.
Below the Mulholland grand organ a chamber orchestra and pianist are ranged on one side, the actors and their table with sound effect paraphernalia on the other. In their war-years attire, the WMT actors offer an interesting view for those close enough.
Perhaps the period picture would have been more complete with an onstage sound technician. At times during the performance, the orchestra drowns out speech, and the sound effects indispensable to such a production – fun as it is to see how they are created by artistic director Aislinn Clarke – are at times barely audible.
The night starts off well with the Cregagh Road Presbyterian Handbell Choir, a form of musicianship many audience members will have not seen before. It's a slightly surreal sight, but 'Joy To The World' and 'Jingle Bells' ring out in beautifully clear tones.
The trio of Mystery Sisters (Beccy Henderson, Claire McCartney and Susan Davey) follows with a selection of period songs. While in their solos, each of their individual voices is lovely and distinct. In close harmony they are superb, as on 'Sleigh Ride' and 'Baby, It's Cold Outside'.
The Golden Age of radio was also the golden age of advertising jingles, as we're reminded when the cast plug, with great relish and gratings of cheese, the likes of Anderson's & McCauley's, the Lilliput Dye Works, and Lifeguard soap ('Give B.O. the old heave-ho!').
For those who remember the austere war years, admonishments to 'buy local' are a trip down memory lane, and the local touch adds enormously to audience enjoyment. In the interval a long-time patron regales us with Ulster Hall lore, making it clear that nights like this are needed to remind us that we have a larger past than the all-eclipsing Troubles.
Then A Christmas Carol itself. It’s been done so many times that it could so easily have coasted along in a sentimental rut. WMT however manage to infuse it with new life, winking an eye where possible, but avoiding insincere cheesiness, and becoming genuinely touching where it really counts.
However familiar the tale of Scrooge's redemption, it's worth hearing again, with the excellent voice acting and the music (under direction of Nicholas Boyle) particularly adding to the experience. Boyle also provides the voice for Bob Cratchit, whose poor but happy Christmas Eve is emphasised with a jaunty 'Deck The Halls', while the same tune becomes slow and off-key as Scrooge searches his home for concealed robbers.
The female narrator (Sonia Abercrombie as the eponymous 'Carol') makes a good contrast with Scrooge; her voice is the sound of dark and grimy Victorian London, and wrings every ounce of ‘penny dreadful’ from the tale.
As Scrooge, Reggie Chamberlain-King runs the emotional gamut from lip-curling contempt towards charity collectors and carol singers, to distress at the Cratchitts' poverty, to earnest yearning for a chance to put it all right.
As Scrooge's ghostly visitors conduct him on a tour of Christmasses Past, Present and Yet To Come, the importance of timing becomes apparent, as Scrooge's baffled conversations with his spectral guides interweave with the sounds of the places and people they show him. The combination of music and sound effects for Fezziwig's Christmas party in particular stand out.
The young Cratchitts come alive too, with Claire McCartney setting down a perfectly holier-than-thou Tiny Tim. If there's one regret, it's that we don’t hear enough from the cosy-sweatered Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (Stephen Todd). The Ghost may have no dialogue, but the haunting sound of his rasping breath adds an atmospheric chill that really couldn't have been overdone and should have been maintained.
After Scrooge’s redemption followed a reprise of the bells, a chorus of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', fortifying the audience against the cold Belfast night, having been put in a decidedly nostalgic mood. On the other hand, Dickens’ seasonal story of spiritual and material wealth, greed and generosity, finds pained echoes in our recession-weary world.