In an age of 3D effects, monolithic movie screens and million dollar budgets, it may be difficult to imagine a time when stories were told by radio. Before the advent of television, skilled actors and sound effect technicians would coax audiences out of their living rooms and into their imaginations solely through sound. For the two and a half hours that Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play was being performed, Vertigo Theatre was a time machine that took audiences back to this golden age of entertainment.
Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play, a play from director Craig Hall, is a retelling of three of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous stories — The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The 39 Steps (1935), and Sabotage (1936) — in the style of an old-time radio broadcast, complete with sound effects and vintage commercials.
Stepping into the theatre was like stepping back into the 1940s: old jazz crackled over the speakers as a dimly lit, art-deco styled stage set the scene for a play based on the golden age of radio. The play began with two signs on either side of the stage lighting up: “on air.” In a voice that was born for radio, the narrator announced that the play will “put murder back in the home — where it belongs.”
There was a vast array of sound effect devices on stage — a large drum, a wooden door on a frame, a series of old microphones and several tables filled with any number of tricks of the trade.
Throughout the play all of the actors were performing, though they weren’t always acting. When the actors weren’t performing a role they were whizzing around the stage performing the sound effects.
The actors who were performing didn’t leave their mikes when they spoke, but if you closed your eyes for a moment, you could swear that they were making the noises themselves because everyone moved in unison.
The suspense of Hitchcock’s tales was intact, but also peppered with instances of campy fun. The three vignettes were interspersed with fictional radio advertisements which gave a sly nod to other Hitchcock classics — one encouraging travel on North By Northwest Airlines and another promoting the comfort and hospitality of the Bates Motel. And of course, the audience dutifully obeyed the “applause” signs when they lit up, marking the end of the story.
By and large the audience was comprised of those who may have heard a live radio play or two — or were alive for the transition from black and white to colour television — although I was not the only whipper-snapper amongst them.
Regardless of age, Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play makes for a captivating and fun night at the theatre. With careful attention to detail and versatile actors, the play was a visual and auditory delight from start to finish. So don’t be a wise guy — ditch your smartphone, grab your gal and go see this production. The show runs until Dec. 8.