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On the mike at Unity

It’s almost deja vu, says former 2ZG radio announcer Mike Coyle of his role as a 1940s radio actor in Unity Theatre’s production of Vintage Hitchcock — A Live Radio Play.

From tomorrow night, seven actors bring the spirit of a 1940s radio broadcast to life in American writer Joe Landry’s play at Unity Theatre. The actors will play out a triple feature of films made by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. With scripts in hand and an on stage sound effects operator the actors not only play multiple characters from Hitchcock’s The Lodger, Sabotage and The 39 Steps, they play them in the characters they have created for themselves as radio actors.

In the early 1900s Coyle’s character had been practising a routine for months when an opportunity aroseo to land an acting job with London’s new theatre the Royal Duchess. The Italian Renaissance styled building was on the High Road in Balham — “gateway to the south”, says Coyle’s character in a reference to British comedian Peter Sellers’ bon mot. When the Royal Duchess was converted into a cinema four years later, Coyle’s character worked in various theatre jobs in the West End.

“Then the 1920s were underway and the government gradually appropriated all the radio stations across the country and created new opportunities in music, drama and talks. I knew the tonsils were good for a few more years, so off to America . . . And here we are.”

The home of NZ radioMid 20th century radio in New Zealand was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff, recalls the former real-life radio announcer. Much of the broadcast was live.

Wellington was the home of radio play production and Coyle was once called on to use his skill with the Irish accent to play two characters.

“That was the environment in Wellington. There were 35 announcers down there. Anyone who could do something did it.”

As a newbie to the industry at the time he was sent to a theatre voice trainer to train in a non-Kiwi accent and develop “received pronunciation”, a middle road in the variety of London accents.

Hauraki Radio announcer Karen Hay broke the mould when she brought the New Zealand accent back to the airwaves and in the music TV show, Radio With Pictures.

Coyle has long relinquished the “received pronunciation” but the distinctive voice still sounds tailored for radio.

As a boy in the 1940s, Coyle had a live radio play experience the likes of which has long been overtaken by the advent of television and internet.

“I was seven when my father took me to an Auckland 1ZB radio theatre one Friday night.”

This was in the days of late shopping on Friday nights.

“Those who wanted to get away from the shopping could drop into the radio theatre and watch them record live. There were six to eight actors on stage. We sat there and were told when to applaud.”

Unity’s Vintage Hitchcock — A Live Radio Play will take the theatre-goers into that world from the moment they walk through, well, not the Royal Duchess’s entrance but the doors of the former Oddfellows Hall on Ormond Road.

The magic of radio“Radio had a magic,” says Coyle.

“It takes a special person to hold that magic and people’s interest. It’s about the imagery of the mind. If you can bring that out you have the audience locked in there with you. The audience feels and understands everything that’s happening.”

Coyle’s veteran radio actor has a young fan among the cast. Although he has film and acting training behind him, this will be the first time Bjorn Ahman has appeared in a Unity production.

“This is my relapse,” he says.

“With this play I’ve realised half of it is performing with your voice, accent and demeanour. You’re painting scenes with your voice.”

At the same time much goes on between the actors as characters playing actors.

“Tiny interactions occur. There are miniature stories within the main story.”

For instance, Ahman’s character is a young man who is trying to fit in with experts in the art. He particularly admires the skill and experience of the seasoned character played by Coyle. At the same time, he tries not to wither under the scornful looks actor Fraser Grout’s imperious war veteran turned stage actor then radio actor (“a bit of a come down”) gives him.

“It’s challenging because there are so many layers,” says Ahman. As Gina Ferkins, the director said, ‘something like this has never hit Gisborne before’.”

Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play, Unity Theatre, Ormond Road, September 13-20, 7.30pm. Matinees September 14 and 15 at 3pm. Tickets $25+bf from Gisborne i-Site or book online through eventfinda at https://tinyurl.com/yyworazl