Fitzrovia Radio Hour
Conceived in early 2008 by two young actors in a touring production of Peter Pan, Fitzrovia stages melodramatic, vintage-style radio plays, right there in front of your very eyes, complete with highly visual, comic sound effects. Said young thesps, Jon Edgley Bond and Alex ‘Ratty’ Ratcliffe were batting around ideas on how to stage rehearsed readings in a tiny basement bar in Rathbone Place called Bourne & Hollingsworth, which Ratty was running in-between acting jobs. Jon had seen King Lear staged as a radio play and had witnessed Alix Dunmore, a fellow Bristol Old Vic graduate, perform in vintage mode at a 1940s-inspired book launch and believed that the radio approach would lend a more engaging visual element to Ratty’s readings. He did what any enterprising young man would do in the circumstances. He Googled ‘1940s radio scripts’ and Bingo! An obliging bunch of enthusiasts over the pond, in the guise of the Generic Radio Workshop, had put together an astonishing collection of vintage scripts, many of them complete with original, hand-scrawled actors’ notes. Spanning the 1930s to the 1960s, they covered everything from Buck Rogers to Round The Horne; cop shows, mysteries, romances, classic pulp noir, you name it, hundreds of ‘em, there for the taking. In fact, I’m ecstatic to report that THEY STILL ARE so we can all gather in the front parlour to while away those long, dark evenings recreating episodes of The Lone Ranger. Just try and stop me.
Messrs Ratcliffe and Edgley Bond selected a handful of GRW’s choicest material, editing out the American references, and decided that their inaugural show would be The Musgrave Ritual – a 25-minute Sherlock Holmes story. Fitzrovia Radio Hour (named for Bourne & Hollingsworth’s location) was ready for launch. Time Out somehow got wind of it all the week before and marked it as Critic’s Choice. That, combined with a bargain £3.50 entrance fee drew a hundred people to a venue that could seat 35 at a pinch. Our plucky fellows promptly put away the chairs to pack in a standing audience and sent half of them round to The Wheatsheaf with the promise of a second sitting. Crikey – and that was just the start of it!
The bill was quickly expanded to three stories and punctuated by adverts from ‘sponsors’, such as Uncle Berners’ Goodnight Relaxant, Clipstone Ceylon Tea and the National Forum For Personal Relations. They started writing their own scripts, using the tried and tested recipe of pulp silliness with a dash of darkness and a hint of horror and always exploiting the comedy inherent in the era’s un-PC attitudes (“Stella, stop being a woman this instant!” being one of my favourite lines). They mingle the epic with the mundane, Wodehouse with Hammer, Boy’s Own with Woman’s Realm. A Leeds lathe worker fails to know his place and meets a shameful and grisly end. The Roger Moore film, Gold, is reinterpreted in Cornwall to become an action-packed tale of Tin. The dauntless Professor Quested saves the capital from the clutches of evil mudmen from the Thames. It’s all very exciting.
Our duo was soon joined by what became the core Fitzrovia company of writers and performers: Alix Dunmore, Tom Mallaburn, Phil Mulryne and Martin Pengelly. They also acquired a growing band of visiting artists and glittering alumni include David Oakes (The Borgias), Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey), Letty Butler (Young Dracula) and Dan Starkey (Dr Who’s Strax). So popular had they become that they were struggling to meet the demands of their loyal public and were outgrowing venues like it was going out of fashion. By the summer of 2009, they were filling the 400-seater UnderGlobe on the south bank every month. Jon Edgley Bond describes that time as “like being in a successful band. It was mayhem, especially during those ten months at the UnderGlobe. As well as writing, performing and producing over an hour’s worth of material for each show, we were all working on other projects and day-jobs at the same time. I remember writing a script curled up backstage while hosting an awards ceremony because it was the only time I could find to do it”. Great Scott, nothing short of madness!
Having starting out with just one sound effect – footsteps – they experimented and built an impressive and hilarious repertoire, scouring pound shops and greengrocers for props. Which brings me to the cabbages. It turns out that your humble brassica is the radio player’s friend. You can kick it, stab it, punch it or whack it with a hammer. Heap the same outrages upon it as the unfortunate character it represents and it delivers every time. Apparently, the giant Jarma is the Fitzrovian variety of choice, £3.50 each down the Bethnal Green Road. Why not purchase one and try it at home? Many Fitzrovian props are, in fact, edible, not to mention messy. I can lay claim to being liberally splattered with watermelon by Mr Edgley Bond and, during that same performance, he comprehensively coated a woman in the front row in egg. The man’s a loose cannon.
Ratty shows the Jarma who's boss
This deeply talented company has honed its craft over the last five years and their performances are richly detailed and tightly choreographed. Each show can involve as many as 200 props and five actors playing up to 50 roles, all of them on-stage throughout and almost falling over each other as they dart from one vintage microphone to another, swapping hats and wielding egg whisks and bicycle pumps. To complicate matters further, there is a sub-text in which each actor also takes the role of their own radio player, acting out the group’s internal rivalries and resentments during the ‘on-air’ reading. Particularly entertaining are Jon Edgley Bond as Leicester’s answer to Errol Flynn (done Robin Hood 13 times, once in a musical) and Tom Mallaburn as Bernard, the self-proclaimed classical dramatic artist who oozes disdain, openly detesting every moment and everyone.
Following a hectic whirl that has included three stints at Edinburgh, appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Today and Loose Ends, a very favourable reception on BBC2’s The Review Show, a couple of west end runs and a two-year rolling tour, Fitzrovia Radio Hour celebrates its fifth birthday with four performances at Brasserie Zedel’s Crazy Coqs from 29th May to 1st June. On the bill are three tales to thrill, chill and fulfill: The Champion, in which an ageing east end boxer aspires to move to Woodford; The Day They Stole The Eiffel Tower, an international heist caper; and The Patter Of Feet, guaranteed to scare the pants off you. The entire affair will, of course, be sponsored by Soho Cigarettes. Sadly, two original cast members will be absent: the impossibly elegant Alix Dunmore and her impeccable diction are currently gracing the west end production of London Wall and Ratty Ratcliffe is now in ‘retirement’ and running the excellent Cooper & Wolf café in E5. Mr Edgley Bond was unable to confirm the final cast list during our chat but he did divulge that Dan Starkey, of Sontaran fame, will be in evidence. Spiffing!