Radio theatre lets your imagination run wild, but seeing a live radio play recording makes the form doubly entertaining
Until recently, if someone told me I had a face for radio, I would probably have burst into tears and spent a week in a balaclava. At least until I met Mariele Runacre-Temple, director of the internet audio drama Wireless Theatre Company, who creates fully rounded play performances for radio recordings; that means actors perform in costume, off book and with stage directions. There's no mugging in front of microphones here.
Barring a really terrible seat at the theatre, where all I could see was the top third of a door and was effectively just listening, I'd never 'watched' a radio play – or particularly wanted to. In fact, I'd always assumed that radio drama, as with the Answer Me This! podcast and BBC7's excellent Undone, was recorded in someone's sitting room, with a harassed producer making squelching noises using a bucket and some Play Doh.
What I – and I suspect most people – particularly love about radio plays is that the listener gets to decide what the world looks like. You don't get a numb bum from a rotten theatre seat and you can crack on doing whatever you like while listening to a play.
The closest thing theatreland has to mimicking this success is the Fortune theatre's massively successful The Woman in Black . Here is a stark production, cloaked largely in darkness and relying on sound effects, with just two actors on stage. Yet, it's terrifying. It's easy to understand why it works similarly for radio.
In fact, I'd wager that horror and spook stories work better on radio than they do in the West End. Wireless's last live show was a selection of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and listening to it on air meant that your imagination could run riot and conjure imagery far scarier than a set designer could budget for.
Of course, some productions work better than others. The revival of Kenneth Williams's radio show Stop Messing About earlier this year was a bit of a damp squib, but Fitzrovia Radio Hour's comic renditions of scripts from the 1940s and 50s have proved so successful that, after a year performing radio plays to audiences at the tiny Bourne & Hollingsworth bar, they moved in June to the 300-capacity Underglobe beneath Shakespeare's Globe.
So why, when we can listen to something in all its polished glory on the radio or in the theatre, do we still want to go and see it behind the scenes? With Fitzrovia Radio Hour, the tongue-in-cheek delivery, costumes and retro humour are part of the package, but it's more than that. Being there when something is being recorded is thrilling. For an hour or so, the audience get to be part of something being created around them. With theatre, you're coughing up £30 plus on an ephemeral delight. With a live radio recording, you get to see it, then turn it on its head and reinvent it for yourself in your imagination later – now that's value for money.