It’s twilight as we arrive at Templemore Baths in East Belfast, temporary home to the Wireless Mystery Theatre, who will perform three ghost stories by Charles Dickens. It’s late October, fireworks crackle in the distance and the Baths – with one pool in operation and the other fallen into empty, echoing disuse – is the perfect setting for a Hallowe’en haunting.
We are led to one cubicle to sample ‘The Ghost in the Bridal Chamber’, and fall under the spell of WMT’s first site-specific production.
The ‘baths’ part is literal. Not that long ago, labourers came to Templemore Baths for their weekly soak and the bathtub, stool and dusty mirror in the cubicle are leftovers from those days. Cracked tiles and rotting ceiling beams amplify both the chilly mood and the sound of the hidden speakers and live effects. It makes for unsettling, intimate storytelling.
The chiffon of a sobbing bride’s dress rustles against the wooden door, clocks tick to a nerve-jangling crescendo and a thunderstorm cracking against the glass roof leaves us cowering in the corner of the cubicle.
After this taste of the show, WMT’s Aislinn Clarke promises that we’ll experience the whole thing later. However, as the cubicles will only hold a very limited audience, we’ll – almost – literally have to sing for our supper. Instead of just observing, we join Clarke and the rest of WMT to help with creating the sound illusions. As the audiences are locked away in their cubicles, we bang their doors to ‘wake them up’ in ‘The Signalman’ and add our voices to a jury’s cry of ‘Guilty!’ in ‘A Trial for Murder’.
Sometimes, though, we are left lurking while the WMT players tiptoe around in the dark, read their scripts by candlelight and make the magic happen. The audience cubicles become, by turn, hotel rooms, train carriages and prison cells. The three stories are strung together by a trio of very unreliable narrators, guiding us through seldom-seen parts of the Baths and spinning tales about Dickens’s famous two-day disappearance in Belfast. The candlelit, disused pool is a highlight, not least through the soundscape of ghostly swimmers by digital sound artist Gus Leudar.
He jumped at the chance to integrate his soundscapes with the narrative of WMT. At the Baths he explains to us how quadrophonic speakers emit sounds across larger areas, while 32 small speakers are hidden in the cubicles for more individually targeted sound. Each listener is addressed across the dividing wall from the next cubicle. It’s been a challenge to get it right, and even between shows he discusses with Clarke how he’s tweaked some of the balances and inserted pauses in the pool’s soundscape to optimally fuse with the live bits.
Clarke tells us how the pool is said to be genuinely haunted, as after the Blitz it was used as a morgue for the adjacent hospital. She’s on the wobbly side of skeptical. Although she hasn’t seen/heard or been spooked by the Templemore Baths phantoms, she admits she’s experienced some strange phenomena in her own home. It was once John Hewitt’s house and on occasion she’s heard an old voice sing a Chieftains song, making her wonder if the Ulster bard is still making himself comfortable. Sound is, of course, evocative. Something that Clarke takes advantage of tonight.
‘Horror stories lend themselves particularly well to radio, as most of the action is only seen with the mind’s eye,’ she explains.
What began as a hobby born of Clarke’s love of vintage radio productions, is now quickly growing into one of the region’s most interesting acts. A combination of human skill, technological wizardry and ideal location they have turned a spooky Hallowe’en offering into an atmospheric tour-de-force.
It has been hard work though. They are a small team and, as we can testify, there is more going behind the screens than you can imagine. Reggie Chamberlain is particularly winded, having just blown out hundreds of tea lights. But it is satisfying, and not without its small rewards. As we say our goodbyes they decide to go for a nightcap. ‘Make it a pub with a fireplace!’ we hear as we disappear into the night.
Dickens, and John Hewitt, would approve.