Throughout the pandemic 45 North have been producing a steady flow of audio dramas via their Written On The Waves project. Many of these have taken a radical approach by introducing varied and innovative formats, differing stylistic approaches and aiming their content at audiences far removed from the traditional well-made play radio listener. Bringing their second season to a close are two pieces which extend the boundaries even further and reach the outer limits of what might be considered an audio dramatic experience, especially as both have a strong visual element to them.
The Rime Of The Second Sister is a story ostensibly aimed at children but will prove of interest to adults as well. It is in the tradition of the choose your own adventure books which makes the whole thing highly interactive. It’s the school holidays and sisters, 8 year old Riley and 15 year old Eliza, are deciding what to do with their day. In a somewhat matter of fact way, they go downstairs to the pub over which they are living only to find the barmaid has developed a lizard’s head and that there’s a marauding dragon to be dealt with. At least they did in the version that I was listening to; other alternatives are available. As “my” version progressed they found themselves on a quest to save a maiden (their own mother), having an adventure on a pirate ship, facing an angry whirlpool at sea and then deposited in a dark cave which seemed to have some sort of sentience. This latter becomes an extended metaphor for the deep depression which rules their mother’s life and which Eliza fears she may have inherited. For this isn’t simply a jolly story play about the power of the imagination, it is a sensitively handled investigation into aspects of mental health. Neither does everything always necessarily end happily; indeed, one ending I came across was as deeply bleak as anything Beckett might have written.
Choice is crucial as I discovered when in the first few minutes I made the “wrong one” and the piece came to an abrupt halt. Fortunately, it’s easy to retrace your steps and take a different path (would that real life was so simple) and this leads to some interesting variations. Having followed a particular path straight through I clicked on some other scenes fairly randomly to find the theme concerning the mother received much more attention and that the larger world of the piece also covered bullying and the use of drugs to control mental health. There’s probably also a lot off other stuff which I never discovered. It’s an intricately patterned maze of possibilities constructed by Ava Wong Davies and the written text is nicely supported with some picture book illustrations from Laura Frances Heitzman. It is a world in which you could easily lose yourself for an hour or two covering some difficult issues with a very original approach.
My final (for now anyway) delve into Written On The Waves was another intricately structured piece which again went further than the usual audio play template. Found by Abi Zakarian starts out as the simple audio and written diary of Ziazan (Jessie Bedrossian) who lives by the Thames in Deptford. The entries are, at first, very brief and halting though there is a significant reason for this, as becomes clear later. While out for her daily walk she sees a book floating in the river and rescues it. The content, which tells the tale of an eighteenth century woman who disguises herself as a male sailor, seems to inspire Ziazan to develop her own writing and from here on in the diary starts to develop in all sorts of directions. The audio part starts to include dialogue scenes not found in the written version and in turn the printed text also has extras such as some tasty sounding recipes and links to external websites about subjects as diverse as a roman villa in Sussex, a Deptford graveyard, a dolphin sighting in the river, a long extract from the washed up journal and a rap poem that Ziazan has composed and there’s even the character’s music playlist which is a neat idea. At a couple of points video is also used as there are short films of a baking demonstration and a recording of an awkward Zoom meeting the protagonist has with her friends.
All of this is most unexpected and lends a whole new dimension to the drama. It becomes important with this piece to both look as well as listen in order to avoid missing anything although it’s so carefully structured that many of the bonuses are “easter eggs” so missing any won’t detract from the plotline. To be honest I rather forgot about the main narrative thrust and its tale of loss and the finding of tranquillity and closure because I became too caught up in enjoying the divergences which were spread throughout. And the beauty of this play is that you can stop and start the narrative at will in order to reflect on the content, explore further or even take time out to bake the delicious sounding nutmeg cake.
It’s been another rich and diverse season of offerings from 45 North and hats off to them for continuing to find new ways of developing audio drama. I’m not sure whether a third season of Written On The Waves is planned but, if it is, it will be intriguing to see how the format develops; I’m not sure that there are too many boundaries left to push.
Today’s bonus Scenes For Survival piece is Running Out which opens with images of the great outdoors and the sounds of someone jogging. In reality Fran (Victoria Balnaves) is still in her flat and is recreating her training programme with a handful of foley effects. She’s sending her mum, currently in an ICU, a reassuring message about maintaining her fitness, especially as her personal trainer Nick (John Scougall) is being less than motivational. This piece by Àine King starts as a comedy but soon becomes poignant with a message for us all about seizing the moment. Clever title, by the way