Theatre of the mind
By Alan Hindle
11 May 2011, 18:44
The sunshine is crashing down, turning pale, jellyfish-faced Londoners into gleaming red lobsters. On such a beautiful weekend, the beginning, hopefully, of a beautiful summer, what you want is a long, torturous drive to a beach where you can sprawl on a blanket and drink Pimms until you pass elegantly unconscious. Around you the burbling voices of children laughing/screaming. The loose gossip of strangers floating on the sultry breeze. Your iPod is blaring this week’s pop revelation.
But maybe it could be blaring a piece of theatre?
Maybe, while other sunworshippers are negating the health benefits of vitamin D-enriched happy rays by reading misery-lit biographies of abused children you could gather folks around you to listen to a radioplay downloaded for free off the Internet.
It’s an idea.
On Air, The Wireless Theatre Company, have been producing short radio plays for several years now. I listened to three today, but will likely pluck more out of the stratosphere in the near future. Apparently they have over a hundred, so if you don’t like one you can just end it and start another. They download in about a minute and are half an hour to an hour in length.
Most plays on BBC Radio 4 are, well, crap. The dialogue is stilted, unreal. The producers can’t understand the benefit of letting all the actors have microphones. One player will come across clearly while everybody else has to shout across the studio. Or through a window, from the pub across the street. On Air understands their medium’s strengths and limitations and either avoid the pitfalls or make a feature out of them, playing with weaknesses for comic effect.
Hoo Hah is a spoof of the entire Radio 4 fodder-machine, written and performed by my new heroes Octavia MacKenzie and Ashley McGuire. Rural dramas, pretentious DJs, pompous round-table discussions by experts with no idea what they’re talking about but who are too professional to let ignorance stop the airwaves filling with blather. The sweet old lady who writes romantic novels but wants to do something grittier, like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, “though I didn’t understand much of it”, so she uses an online ‘Cockney’ translator to turn her pap into streetwise gibberish and then reads it in her wispy, heartland accent. MacKenzie and McGuire hit every nail, relentlessly, throwing away lines and gags like tomatoes in an Italian festival. That festival. The one where they throw tomatoes.
The Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack- Episode One: The Ghost of Clapham Common is an old-fashioned serial drama in which dashing heroes confront slithery villains and teeter constantly on the precipice of Impending Doom. The Strange Case seems to be about a demonic creature, seen once by a young boy dancing on a blazing rooftop the night his brave father dies saving people from a burning building. The boy grows up to be a police constable, and the devil, known locally as Springheel’d Jack, is seen again as terrible crimes are again committed. I think that’s the plot. The play opens with several minutes of zingy sound effects and technicians breaking stuff in the studio. It’s very dramatic, but what’s going on? A fire? A battle? A kid with whooping cough? A determined orchestra? It takes a long time before it becomes obvious the show is an over-the-top spoof of the old cliffhangers, by which point I was already exhausted.
2010 Space Commander is a thoughtful sci-fi/philosophical comedy set nearly six hundred years in the future. Humanity has long since given up on their frail physical bodies and have uploaded themselves onto the Internet. Now the cheerful if dominating voice of Mother Google simply creates 11,000 new minds every day to float in the aether of cyberspace. It’s a dictatorship of knowledge, but some remnant of humanity still clings to our digitalised intelligences, pushing at barriers and hankering to explore what we don’t, or aren’t allowed, to know.
Recorded live in front of an audience this play isn’t sure whether its pure science fiction or a goofy comedy and while its two halves don’t reconcile for me there was enough of each in patches to make me both think and laugh, which is still better than most fare on Radio 4.
So bake yourself into a glamorous lobster, slathering coconut tanning cream and garlic butter into your every crevice. But thermidor your mind with some uplifting, or at least supremely goofy, theatre. The best art, like cancer, is free.