C Aquila (Venue 21), Edinburgh
2-27 August 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Hymns For Robots, Noctium Theatre’s portrait of electronic music innovator Delia Derbyshire, is an appealingly winsome piece of theatre.
Derbyshire is most famous for reworking Ron Grainer’s theme music for Doctor Who into the instantly recognisable, still astonishing original version. Despite Grainer’s desire to give her equal credit, this was never forthcoming.
This was less because she was female, and more because she was a BBC staffer. A similar fate befell Raymond Cusick, who allegedly never saw a penny of the Dalek money that came Terry Nation’s way, despite being the one who actually designed them.
However, Derbyshire undoubtedly suffered terribly from sexism at the patriarchal BBC of the 1950s and 1960s. Comparisons with Blood of the Young’s recent Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound – another portrait of a female BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneer – are bound to be made, however unfair they may be. That show was not only more fun, it made more telling points about the atmosphere in which both the women worked.
There are, however, some very attractive things about this production. There is an intelligence and coherence to the narrative, in a piece devised by the company and directed by Connor Alexander.
Jessie Coller’s Derbyshire is a poised and well-considered performance. Her cut-glass accent is spot on, and the apparently heightened, mannered acting style really not a million miles from the way well-brought-up gels were expected to conduct themselves at the Beeb. Charles Craggs provides unassuming support as her friend and collaborator Brian Hodgson.
The electronic sound provided by Craggs is atmospheric and instructive, although it is a shame that (presumably for copyright reasons) we never get anything remotely resembling that iconic Whotheme. The accompanying ‘howlaround’ visuals are reproduced, however, as part of some rather homespun projections.
There is an appealingly Heath Robinson feel to the set, with its spools of unwound tape. This does reinforce the stereotype of a bunch of lovable eccentrics; the overall feel is upbeat despite the darker elements, with the chaos that was to befall her professional and personal lives being treated lightly.
It seems clear that Derbyshire could be her own worst enemy at times. While the alcoholism that was to destroy her is only hinted at, there is a constant desire to be charming here, which is often in danger of toppling over into gratingly twee.
Anyone unfamiliar with Derbyshire will get a great deal from what is a cleverly put together and notably well performed piece. However, a large proportion of those who will seek this out at the Fringe will be devotees either of Doctor Who or electronic music, and they might wish for something that goes a little deeper.