So. I went to Alphabetti Theatre to see Frank Sumatra by Mike Yeaman, which the publicity described as being performed in the style of a radio play. (As an aside – if I needed any encouragement for that – if you are in the North East of England go to Alphabetti. It’s a shoe-string operation which does great theatre in a basement.) It was a great evening with a funny, well-performed piece, which left me thinking about the radio play format.
In my teens I listened to a lot of radio drama: adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers detective stories, half-hour comedies, proper plays. I even tried writing them myself. (My early 70’s play about a plane hijacking – very topical then – used a hoover for the sound of an aeroplane taking off: that was before I got my first cassette recorder.) Despite all that listening I haven’t thought about them very much: so here goes.
The first and obvious thing about radio plays is that you can present any scenario you want, provided you can present a realistic soundscape. You can do things you can’t do on stage or in film without a massive budget. In Frank Sumatra, Frank was an orang-utang, four months old at the start at the play and fully grown by the end: eat your heart out Richard Linklater.
Beyond even Frank are the Goon Shows, which used the freedom of the format to create astonishing sound images: a rabid Christmas pudding terrorising people; a man travelling in a crate (Eccles: ‘Ah this is the life, being nailed up in a crate and carried across Africa’); a canvas tent with an upstairs.
Why does that work? My current idea is that radio draws on our experience of oral storytelling: it is a step beyond Charles Dickens giving readings from his work, but still on the same path. In the same way as our friend giving us the ‘he said, she said’ of their day, the radio play invites our engagement with a vocal story. We have to put ourselves in the path of the play.
The second thing I noticed was the treatment of time. The radio play, like the novel (and the TV advert) can make huge temporal jumps: ten seconds of a Frank Sinatra song and the characters in Frank Sumatra have conceived, carried and given birth to a child. Brilliant. And no need for a nine months later caption. The story-telling roots permit the leaps in time, which the more visual presentation of theatre and film balk at.
The more I think of it, the more interesting the format becomes, even without the additional layering of the live stage performance of Frank Sumatra (and, in its first incarnation Anomalisa). I might have to give it a shot myself.