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After the Belgrade Theatre’s Springboard scheme brought Noctium Theatre’s The Country Doctor to its B2 stage last year, the Coventry company follow up their stylish debut with a more experimental piece, inspired by the life and work of musical pioneer and Coventry icon Delia Derbyshire.
Now best remembered for her work on the original Doctor Who theme tune with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this largely unsung local hero helped to shape the course of music history, experimenting with electronic sounds and composition long before such breakthroughs were taken seriously by her contemporaries. As the play shows us, at the BBC where she co-created television scores, she was always an “Assistant Studio Manager” and never a composer, producing “special sounds” rather than music. Yet today, she’s credited with influencing countless bands from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Orbital and The Chemical Brothers, despite herself remaining a relatively obscure figure until her death in 2001.
The enticingly named “Hymns for Robots” is still at “work in progress” stage at present – last night’s free showing was designed to trial run a few ideas and gather feedback, so this is less a full review than thoughts so far.
Like The Country Doctor, the piece incorporates elements of mime and physical theatre, including the black and white make-up that gave their previous show its distinctive, stark appearance. Bits of tape and old equipment encircle the stage, strewn over the floor, strung up between mic stands, and even tied into the massive updo sported by Delia herself (as played by Jessie Coller), creating a sense of a cluttered creative mind. It’s effective because it’s Delia as a person as much, if not more than, her achievements that seems to interest Noctium, and her character definitely comes across clearly. Fiercely intelligent, strong-willed and comfortable in her eccentricity, she was content to carve out her own creative niche despite the lack of credit or glory it afforded her. She was also restless to the point of making personal relationships quite difficult. As the output of the Radiophonic Workshop expanded at the BBC, she felt constrained by deadlines and workloads, retreating out to the Cumbrian countryside, only to find herself feeling isolated, missing the bustle and energy of London. In Cumbria, she also got married, only to separate from her new husband three days later. She seems not to have been the sort of person to suffer fools gladly, though like anyone she had her vulnerable side as well.
What’s perhaps most fascinating are the stories of sounds remembered from her youth and childhood which inspired her music: from the otherworldly wailing of the air-raid sirens during the Coventry Blitz, which she describes as sounding like a herd of monstrous animals coming over the horizon; to her experience of an avant-garde sound installation during a holiday as a young woman, where electronic sound resonated round a structure like hymns in a futuristic cathedral. Local people will doubtless be interested to hear about how her groundbreaking work was so deeply connected to Coventry’s wartime history.
Throughout the show, electronic sounds are played from a computer by Charles Craggs, fitted around the action and sometimes manipulated live on stage. For example, pitches are raised and lowers as Delia lifts and drops a piece of tape. It’s nicely done, and it would be great to see this side of things explored further, perhaps with more use made of the full theatre space, creating a kind of surround sound experience for the audience.
Rights issues might be a problem here, but the other key thing it currently lacks is any of Delia’s own music. Since we see so much of her working through ideas, it’s slightly unsatisfying that we’re offered little insight into the fruit they ultimately bear.
It’s a great beginning though, with lots of atmosphere and scope for further development. With the piece currently running at 45 minutes long, Noctium say they plan to round that to an hour, but it could easily be extended to a full 90 minutes without suffering – particularly if the stories and relationships from her post-BBC career were fleshed out further.
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