Sound is always a difficult element of online theatre to get right because no matter how good the original recording is, the real litmus test is when it emerges at the audience’s end possibly through tinny and inadequate speaker systems or on tablets and even phones which have no depth of quality to them. It is just one of the reasons why wearing decent headphones can make all the difference. I recall that one of the most stunning online theatre experiences I had last year was Complicité’s streamed production of The Encounter which used binaural sound to fully immerse the audience and had me reviewing it as “compelling, utterly different and extremely rewarding”. A couple of plays online seem to have taken this show as a point of inspiration so I thought I would investigate.
The first, called simply Monster, was initially envisaged by writer Brad Birch as a site specific piece although, of course, Covid 19 had other ideas. So, it was repurposed as an audio drama and brought to fruition by the BBC’s Research and Development programme. There are two different versions available; the first on the BBC Sounds app involves just clicking a button and listening to it as a straight audio play. But the second, although a little more complex to set up, is ultimately more rewarding. For this you need to access the BBC’s Taster website and then connect up at least two more devices using a code; this is actually easier than it sounds. Instructions are then given in the preamble as to where to place the devices for maximum effect; thus, I had a laptop in front, a phone to one side and a tablet behind me. Sometimes these played sounds in unison but more often than not there were separate things going on, e.g. a dialogue in one, a TV programme playing in a second and a clock ticking in a third; there are also some intermittent visuals. This really puts you at the heart of the action which is horror story based.
Cerian (Bettrys Jones) and her daughter Delyth (Demi Letherby) have suffered a bereavement and then weird things begin to happen around the house. The younger tries to embrace what is happening while the older goes into denial. And it all seems to be part of a bigger picture of paranormal activity as reported by the news media we can hear. There are a couple of jolt you out of your seat moments but most of it is fairly predictable. What makes the play different and ultimately a good listen is the advanced technology being used and the real star of the show has got to be sound designer Catherine Robinson. It’s clearly a complicated business and I don’t have room to explain it here – not that I could anyway.
The second audio based play, though it’s actually badged as “an experience”, can also be found on the BBC where you are advised to read some programme notes before doing anything else as this will fill in the background to the audio about to be encountered. You are then taken to Nottingham based Chronic Insanity’s website for the actual play, intriguingly called Hairy Hands FM. This short drama is based on a Dartmoor legend in which a pair of disembodied hands appear suddenly, grab at the steering mechanism of a moving car or a motorcycle and then force the driver off the road with sometimes fatal results. In Joe Strickland’s script, Sarah and Trevor (Abbi Davey and Alex Steadman) are discussing the myth on their radio phone-in programme; she’s a believer, he isn’t. You are supposedly waiting in a caller’s queue when the studio is attacked and so is your home. Guided by Trevor you have to try and defeat the hands; no spoilers as to how but as I’m still alive to write this now you can be assured that I was successful. I never did find out what became of Sarah.
Once again, the sound design is all important and Hannah Parsons makes very good use of the binaural properties to convince you that the hands are getting ever closer as you hide in a corner. For to make this fully succeed you need to followTrevor’s instructions, move as bidden and respond verbally when required to do so (each new stage of the play is triggered by the sound of your voice). To get the full effect have the lights out and use a mobile device and headphones. It’s a delightfully clever, not to say slightly unnerving, concept to be tried out late at night when everyone else is in bed or otherwise occupied. Whatever you do though, don’t try and play it while driving the car… especially if you’re in Devon at the time.