The radio drama: a form almost entirely lost to history but which at one time commanded audiences of millions, glued to the wireless to listen to whatever classic literary adaptation Welles or Gielgud had learned the lines for twenty minutes previously and enlisted the help of pots, pans and coconuts to provide the cutting-edge technical effects for. In our own more cynical time the Fitzrovia Radio Hour stands as a brave tribute to those simpler, warmer, more homely times, and in the case of their latest show they couldn’t have prepared a more festive treat had they put a paper hat on it and floated it in a manger full of cranberry sauce.
This retelling of the most retold of all Christmas stories bar the Nativity itself is stuffed full of good cheer and silliness while maintaining an impressive commitment to the lost craft of radio plays and not a small amount of proper creepiness. The premise has the Fitzrovia Radio Hour cast relocated to the vaults beneath Waterloo Station sometime in the 1940s after a suspicious accident has almost killed their Scrooge at the Old Vic. Actor Ernest Andrew (Samuel Collings) is delighted to finally get the chance to play the lead character in their annual Christmas show, but may be guilty of a few miserly sins of his own. Both stories play out in front of us in the farcical tradition of The Play that Goes Wrong or Noises Off.
The chaos that follows is properly laugh-out-loud, knockabout stuff with the most inventive set of sound effects you’ll see (a long set-up with rice crispies in order to procure a satisfying “roaring fire” effect was a favourite of mine) on the stage for a while. There is a palpable love for the kind of cut-glass forties BBC acting it takes its inspiration from: the fact that everyone insists on pronouncing the “t” in Christmas is just one of the many spot-on gags that just gets funnier as it is repeated.
We are treated to both a straight retelling of Dickens’ work with every story beat handsomely mounted and the text lovingly hammed up, and a presentation of the slapdash reality of putting on a radio play, including an actor who can’t quite find the line between his Welsh and Indian accents and the need to constantly mention the brand of gin that sponsors the show (a reference to the Campbell’s soup sponsorship of some of Orson Welles’ finest dramatic hours). Between ludicrous innuendo and a rousing telling of a good Christmas story by genuine enthusiasts and theatrical craftsmen, this is that proper, rare Christmas gift of a show for everyone.
A Christmas Carol is playing at The Vaults until December 31.
Photo: Geraint Lewis