By Brian Jarman
How would you emulate the sound of a man’s neck being broken? Or a plane going through the sound barrier? A game of billiards? Maybe a better question is: why on earth would you want to?
The people to ask are The Fitzrovia Radio Hour. This quirky theatre group write and perform radio plays in the style of the 1940s and 1950s, complete with dinner jackets, cut-glass accents and a repertoire of inventive on-stage sound effects which are as much of a delight as the plays themselves.
‘It tickles two parts of your brain at the same time,’ says founding member and director Jon Edgley Bond.
They’ve just returned from a highly successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, where they got rave reviews.
It all started two years ago in the Bourne and Hollingsworth cellar bar on the corner of Rathbone Place and Percy Street. Six actors, including bar manager Alex Ratcliffe, were wondering what to do next. So they decided, as the saying almost goes, to do a show right there in the bar.
‘We needed work,’ says Jon. ‘We needed to be very practical about it. We needed something that would fit into the bar physically as well as spiritually. It was all decorated in the style of the 1940s. It looked like your grandmother’s living room. We needed to keep rehearsal time down because we couldn’t pay anyone. It’s odd that something fairly weird came out of quite a logical process.’
So they hit on the idea of performing old-fashioned radio plays. They came up with the name Fitzrovia Radio Hour because they were in Fitzrovia and the name somehow had that old glamorous ring to it.
The first play they put on was an adaption of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.
‘We only had two live sound effects: footsteps and a door knock,’ says Jon. ‘The rest were recorded.’
But when they saw the gasps of delight from the audience they knew they were on to something.
‘When they saw one character speaking and another doing the footsteps, it was as if they were seeing magic,’ says Jon.
Since then they haven’t looked back. Two of the core six members, Tom Mallaburn and Martin Pengelly, do much of the writing. The troupe is completed by Alix Dunmore, their only full-time actress, and Phil Mulryne.
‘Tom and Martin lock themselves in a room for a week and emerge with bleeding scars,’ says Jon.
Their material embraces chillers, thrillers and sci-fi. They come up with titles like The Day They Stole The Eiffel Tower, and Bulldog Drummond-esque characters like Colonel Excalibur Rogers.
This play calls for a motor boat failing to start.
‘We tend to know now what kind of effects are going to give us trouble,’ says Jon. ‘It’s always the big mechanical things.’
At first, they took a chain saw on stage to create the effect. But then they began to realise that this was too much like the real thing – the great joy for the audience was seeing sound created in unexpected ways. They experimented and found that a tin toy spinning top that you press down would do just as well.
‘It was a eureka moment for us,’ says Jon.
So they’ve built up their repertoire as they’ve gone along. Some of the effects are very complex. In The Man Who Was Ten Minutes Late, they have to create the sound of a plane going through the sound barrier and entering a parallel universe. But it also has a reverse gear so it can come back out again.
‘The sound of the engine is a desk fan on the wooden table,’ says Jon. ‘As the plane accelerates, Alix jingles a pair of metal colanders. When the plane reverses, we put a playing card into the fan. For the sonic boom we use what we call thundermics – they’re cardboard tubes with springs that make a boom sound. When the plane passes into another dimension we just wobble a piece of perspex like Rolf Harris. And then we had to figure out how to create radio static. So we use…. a radio. Occasionally we get Heart FM coming through.’
In another play they have to make the sound of someone turning inside out. First they tweak a piece of wet balloon, then they crush lettuce, then finally ram a plunger into a tub of water.
They also sprinkle their plays with adverts for things like toothpaste and engine oil. They take old American radio ads and adapt them, as there were no commercials on British radio at the time. This is something they occasionally get criticised for.
‘We’re not trying to recreate the sound exactly,’ says Jon. ‘We’re trying to evoke the spirit of the age. You have to buy into the world of Fitzrovia.’
The Fitzrovia Radio Hour perform regularly at the restaurant of The Globe and in an art deco club on Shoreditch High Street, which they think of as their spiritual home.
Oh, and how do they create the sound of a man’s neck being broken?
‘We just twist some bubble wrap,’ says Jon. ‘It’s wonderful that you can get a laugh in something so dark and gothic.’