By Michael Kaufmann
I’ve never really been the kind of person who listens to the radio. I’ve only ever really paid attention to it on long drives when I haven’t planned out a playlist or podcasts. It’s always just been there. However, part of me is genuinely sad about the loss of the live radio play. There seems to be something so satisfying about the art of completely aural storytelling, with clever real time sound effects and masterful voice acting. The Ensemble Theatre’s Murder of the Wireless seems to have been conceived by someone with the same idea, and it delivers its old world charm on a silver platter, in an evening of fun storytelling and loving pastiche.
Set in the radio heyday of 1959, the audience is invited in for a special live taping of the annual double bill, one classic Sherlock Holmes mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle called The Solitary Cyclist, followed by a newer addition called The Dead(ly) Wives Club (written by director and cast member Mark Kilmurry), a modern (kind of) mystery filled with 1950s wit. The small space of the Ensemble Theatre is handsomely dressed, smartly resembling a cosy recording studio decked out with a rug, microphones, with the full (and surprising) array of props to be used by the Foley artist. Over the tight 90 minutes, the actors drift around the space, playing their multiple parts, switching between multiple voices, and telling their stories; whilst behind them the Foley artist moves like clockwork.
Everything about this production is smart. Mark Kilmurry’s script is smart, his direction is smart, the performances are smart. The characters, sound effects, jokes etc. all smart. Kilmurry in particular, as the show’s creator and director, brings an intelligent force to his multiple performances and characters. As Sherlock Holmes, he vocally characterizes an iconic character with all the expected aspects of the eccentric detective. His Holmes is less the troubled and difficult sociopath we have become used to in modern portrayals, but more in line with the serials from the 1950s and 60s. He is witty, excited, joyful, and all the while egotistical and mean to his Watson; and Kilmurry gets all of this across in his vocal performance. His Watson is voiced by Daniel Mitchell, who narrates the story, whilst also playing an Irish caretaker. This performance is also filled with the wit and intelligence of his partner, but with the addition of dynamic changes between character voices. Georgie Parker brings an air of refinement to the proceedings in her characters, whilst skilfully shouldering her share of the wit and charm of the evening. The silent force up the back of the stage, however, is something else entirely. The Foley artist, played by Katie Fitchett, is a powerhouse of clever physical comedy, as she methodically goes about her business, creating all of the sound effects. Whether evoking the sound of racing cyclists with a fishing reel and an egg beater, or wrestling on the floor with a rug to create a bar fight, all of her work is impeccably timed for comedy, providing a dynamic counterpoint to the spoken wit of the players. Even stopping to grab a quick puff of her cigarette is cause for multiple laughs over the night.
The production is sleekly lit, serving simple and functional lighting that helps delineate between the on-air and off-air action. The few sound effects not produced by Fitchett were deployed un-intrusively with polish; and the music utilized was extremely effective in setting the tone and atmosphere of the action, providing aural cues that are instantly recognizable for the audience. The 1950s pastiche is laid on lovingly thick, everyone on stage seems to be having a grand time revelling in their combined love of what they are sending up.
However, the one thing that stops the play from being completely satisfying is the lack of duality. In Kilmurry’s introduction, he establishes backstories and characters for everyone in the cast, but after that, we don’t really see much of these individuals. There is one moment in the second half where we see the actors briefly interact with each other whilst seamlessly maintaining their performances, and it was a bit of new comedy that was extremely welcome. After the first story, the novelty of the setup, though no less intelligent, feels familiar, we’ve literally just seen this. By introducing another layer to the action, the structure is refreshed and given extra life. I’m not suggesting something akin to The (Radio)Play That Goes Wrong, but this little sprinkle of extra comedy gives the characters more depth and left me wanting more from the actors underneath their voice performances.
That aside, Murder on the Wireless is a triumph of loving pastiche and well thought out comedy, delivering a pleasantly divertive evening of comedy.
Photo Credit: Prudence
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.