Murder in the Studio: Staging a Radio Play
Theatremakers Jenni Rushton and Keith Beattie share their experiences of directing an amateur production of Murder in the Studio, a trio of plays that Agatha Christie originally wrote for the radio.
Murder in the Studio is one of the many titles featured in the Agatha Christie Collection, a newly expanded selection of plays that were written by or with the direct involvement of Christie herself.
It’s exciting to tackle something that bit different in amateur theatre, and Agatha Christie’s Murder in Studio presents such an opportunity. It may be the case that some amateur groups would look at these three radio plays and think that the public wouldn’t pay to watch or indeed even be interested in witnessing a play reading. Well, how wrong they would be!
The three different murder mysteries — Butter in a Lordly Dish, Personal Call, and Yellow Iris — offer a whole raft of challenges. Challenges that will stretch each member of the cast. For example, actors are required to portray one or more characters; they need to be creative with their voice, given that the action is supposed to be happening on the radio. This allows the director to concentrate on characterisations, polishing diction and facial expressions, as well as encouraging actors to move around the microphone, using it as a tool to help their performance.
There is a real opportunity to be creative with the staging. We had great fun deciding what a 1950s radio studio would look like, and this prompted an interesting debate on whether to use live microphones or not; we did decide to use them. Once this decision had been made, it helped finalise the design of our simple set. We positioned the mics so that the members of the cast could see each other when they were performing, and this helped them to pace their delivery and develop their reactions to the script. When not acting, cast members used seating around the back of the set. We created a studio doorway, for entrances, and a small control booth to give a feel of authenticity. We also used a gold ruched curtain across the back of the set to add some period glamour.
A key element to the success of each play was down to the skill of the sound man. We had great fun with working out how to produce the sounds of doors opening and closing, telephone rings, keys in locks, and so on. We did use pre-recorded background railway station noises, but our decision to use a live sound man on stage during the performance worked well. His interaction with both the cast and the audience was a highlight each night, and our audience loved watching how the sound effects worked.
We decided to create a 1950s feel to the set by using the costumes of the period, which was enjoyed by our audience and added a splash of colour. The play Yellow Iris provided the opportunity for live music on stage, which was our preferred option. Although local musicians weren’t available at the time of our production, thankfully we were able to record one of our company members performing two songs, which worked well as an alternative.
Agatha Christie’s work is loved by many and has such a strong following. Our audiences were delighted that we provided such an enjoyable night’s entertainment, which perhaps wasn’t what they had initially expected from a cast reading aloud radio plays. They liked the 1950s feel, and that the same actors played more that one role. The fact that the cast were reading lines from the page did not detract from the acting and indeed underpinned the period radio broadcast feel of the piece.
Discover the full Agatha Christie Collection.
Photo credit: Chris Lewis Photography