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Dying laughing: Fitzrovia Radio Hour’s Undead! Unloved! Unsolved! at the Horse Hospital

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

Watching the Fitzrovia Radio ensemble pad around on slippered feet at the Horse Hospital creating sound-pictures would make anyone want to be a foley artist. The dulcet sultry tones of Natalie Ball display admirable dexterity. Dan Starkey’s Dutch grammar-disordered Abraham van Helsing in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” deserves special mention.

When I tried to describe the workings of Fitzrovia Radio Hour, an episodic re-imagining of a 1940s radio show being recorded live before a studio audience, to a friend, her eyes went round as an owl’s. She confessed a long-held secret desire to be a foley artist. Indeed, watching the Fitzrovia Radio ensemble pad around on slippered feet creating sound-pictures from items as diverse as bicycle pumps, watering cans, whisks and the humble cabbage would make anyone want to be a foley artist.

This episode, Undead! Unloved! Unsolved!, consists principally of Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” written by ensemble members Jon Edgley Bond, Tom Mallaburn and Phil Mulryne, with shorter pieces “The Romance of Helen Simms” and “The Four Minute Mystery” also featured.

There is more joy in Fitzrovia Radio Hour than smushed watermelons alone. Fitzrovia Radio Hour’s veneer of frivolity is underpinned by a steely frame questioning what we are most afraid to admit could make us laugh. The script is peppered with zinging one-liners aimed straight for the heart of our assumptions about ourselves, about others, and about the past. This is also achieved through broadly sketched national and regional accents that imply a whole range of dubious character traits, ultimately poking holes in the audience’s own stereotypical notions – for we wouldn’t laugh if we didn’t in some part believe it. Dan Starkey’s Dutch grammar-disordered Abraham van Helsing in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” deserves special mention in this regard, as does Tom Mallaburn’s Yorkshire-bred hotel manageress in the same story.

Structured as a show-within-a-show, the dynamic between the peformers wraps further, meaning around each episode within: like the Kinder Egg encasing the toy. Implications of relationships both friendly and vicious between the cast are expressed in silent gestures and looks that completely reframe each scene being enacted vocally. The dulcet sultry tones of Natalie Ball cannot mask vehement loathing in her glares at Tom Mallaburn, whose own character portrays a sneering, silent, constantly muttering distaste for the remainder of the cast. This tension between what is done and what is said provides some of the biggest laughs of the performance.

Playing both Lucy and Lucy’s one-time Texan fling Quincy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Natalie Ball shows admirable dexterity. What with the requisite stabbing of melons and facial submersions in bowls of water, I can only imagine the dry cleaning bills for that green dress are considerable. Lucy’s friend Mina is played with enthusiastic innocence by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, who also takes a turn as the no-nonsense quick-talking title character in “The Romance of Helen Simms,” a tale of a secretary striving to find love after the age of 35. William Findley gives us the dim but impeccably well-spoken lawyer to the Dracula estate Jonathan Harker in Dracula and Simms’s querulous on-again, off-again boyfriend, love rival to Dan Starkey’s connivingly northern Roger Hunter in “The Romance of Helen Simms.” Tom Mallaburn’s susurrating Dracula is squirm-inducingly hilarious.

It is impossible to keep track of all of the quick-change characters in “The Four Minute Mystery,” so I can only say that its frenetic pacing left me amused rather than enlightened (I still don’t know whodunnit), but I suspect that’s rather the point. Tom Mallaburn provides original music during the show, using a keyboard and what I’m pretty sure is an upended hammer dulcimer to add eerie and comedic touches. Faux-advertising breaks for Soho Cigarettes provide an appealing nostalgic suggestiveness.

The pace of the show gradually increases to a messy zenith in the final half-hour, with the whole cast, but especially Dorathea Myer-Bennett, bringing a fresh (and rather juicy) answer to TS Eliot’s question in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:” “Do I dare to eat a peach?” By all appearances, yes indeed.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts on 6 July 2013.