Over the years I have recorded in some very different locations but the award for the most surreal experience goes to recording the radio play Figureheads around a billiard table in the timber watch house of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade. This, on a dark blustery afternoon as I watched a gigantic ferry pass by the window, dwarfing the pier as it left the safety of the Tyne to take its chances in the North Sea.
The recording went well, thanks to the fantastic actors Penny Lamport, Mary Pickin, Karen Traynor, Ann Ridley and Ray Moore plus Julie Bartley of Rolling Audio and of course Noreen Rees’ wonderful script.
The play was inspired by four wrecked ships’ wooden figureheads found in the watch house museum and tells the story of the stricken ship Stanley which foundered on the Black Middens rocks at the base of the headland in 1864. It was out of this tragic event that the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was established; it is still in active service today and still operating from this historic building.
Following on from the recording we were to return 2 weeks later and with 2 hours rehearsal time to prepare for a live peformance of the radio play later the same afternoon. The main challenge was to get the actors and sound effects to come in at the right time (put together with Julie of Rolling Audio) and to sing the occasional refrains in tune. The play was to be staged in the main hall, the watch house museum, amongst the portraits, photographs, models, maps and artefacts acquired from over 150 years of the volunteer service.
It was probably just an eerie coincidence but the heavy lid on an open box of ropes fell shut with a bang just as we were completing our rehearsal!
By 3pm we were ready to play to an audience of over 70 people. (thanks to my newsletter readers who came along – it was great to see you). First on was a group from Elementary Writers, whom I had recorded at St Mary’s Lighthouse the previous week, reading a selection of their stories and poetry. This work was inspired by Whitley Bay and St Mary’s island and really struck a chord with the audience.
A quick break for refreshments and the performance of the radio play Figureheads began. Our simple staging was the 4 wooden figureheads which inspired the Figureheads play (Lowestoft, Fame, First of May and Rupert), the breeches buoy (a rope pulley system to be fired from the land to haul people to safety) which was seen in action as part of the play and the original bell of the ship Stanley hanging from the rafters.
The delivery of the actors, their plaintive singing along with the sound effects of the Stanley breaking up on the rocks meant a charged peformance. To add to the atmosphere, behind them through the window, the light was fading over the sea and when the bell of the Stanley was tolled, as the names of the dead were announced, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
I am a great believer that simplicity has the greatest impact and, judging by the comments of the audience as they left, for Figureheads this proved to be the case. There was also a retiring collection for Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade to help them to continue their vital work.
Figureheads radio play is part of the Culture Bites @ North Tyneside Podcasts Project sponsored by North Tyneside Council and Arts Council England. I should especially like to thank Sam Levy, Eductation Officer at TVLB Watch House Museum for all her support.
Click below to hear Figureheads