Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 24 May 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a freshness and infectious enthusiasm to Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound. This, allied to a magnetic central performance, overcomes oddities in the script and staging to create a thoroughly pleasing whole.
Blood of the Young and the Tron Theatre’s touring production was written by director Paul Brotherston and Isobel McArthur, who plays composer and pioneer of musique concrete Daphne Oram. Oram was largely responsible for the foundation of the BBC’s groundbreaking Radiophonic Workshop in the 1950s, but her name – unlike that of Delia Derbyshire, for example – is now largely forgotten.
The energy and commitment of this play should go some way towards remedying this state of affairs. For a self-contained touring production, this has an admirable display of resource and ambition, epitomised by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set, with its office desks resembling Aladdin’s cave. Strange to relate, then, that Brotherston and McArthur’s script favours a conventionally chronological and somewhat superficial retelling of the life of such a pioneer. What is even odder is the comparative underuse of electronic music.
Anneke Kampman’s live score confines itself largely to a repeated pattern which seems to resurface between every scene, accompanied by some slow-motion movement that does not seem completely thought through, and soon palls.
There are odd detours in the story, furthermore. The story of the setting up of the Workshop becomes an extended exploration of internal BBC politics in the 1950s, which continues long after its point has been made. That point, however, is a very important one – that the Corporation was a paternalistic and patriarchal body, hidebound by old-school-tie procedures and governed by unspoken rules about class and gender. McArthur’s cut-glass accent as Oram seems exaggerated today but is an accurate representation of the voices the BBC favoured in that era.
McArthur’s performance is a complex, subtle and thoroughly engaging one, portraying a woman underestimated and belittled by male colleagues. She has a spiky self-determination that makes her at best a curiosity to her more clubbable co-workers, and leads to her achievements being airbrushed from the official BBC version of events.
This is all done with a lightness of touch that steers well away from any potential heavy-handedness. Not all of the humour finds its mark, and the various characters portrayed by the ensemble (Robin Hellier, David James Kirkwood, Dylan Read and Matthew Seager) are often more caricatures than realistic portraits, but they rarely outstay their welcome and provide a useful contrast to McArthur’s more nuanced approach. Hints of Oram’s interests in the spiritual world surface, but – thankfully – these are not laboured either.
There is still room, furthermore, to allude to how a system geared not to giving the public what they wanted, but rather to providing what was perceived as being good for them, produced extremely interesting results ranging from Beckett’s All That Fall to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit.
What holds all of this together is McArthur’s central performance. The comparatively unsuccessful portrayal of the older Oram, which slides a little uncomfortably into clichéd ‘aged lady’ acting, only highlights how thoroughly she inhabits the character the rest of the time. She communicates her fascination with using technology to create entirely new sounds and experiences; more of these type of sounds, and Oram’s compositions in particular, would have been welcome. What is presented, however, has a definite charm.