First published in The Times, Tuesday May 16 2017
It is hard to conceive of a time when electronic music was not a significant part of the soundtrack to our lives. Yet, back in the late 1950s, the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which created sound effects for use in programming, was so controversial that its founders, Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe, found themselves operating on a miniscule budget out of two dingy rooms at the corporation’s Maida Vale studios.
The Tron has form when it comes to theatrical portrayals of famous members of the department that, in its earliest days, created soundtracks for The Goon Show. Delia Derbyshire, who realised Ron Grainer’s theme tune for Doctor Who, was the subject of Nicola McCartney’s inventive play, Standing Wave, which debuted at the Glasgow theatre in 2004.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The unconventional, brilliant Oram is a similarly fascinating subject for drama. A pioneering figure in the development of electronic music, she fought tooth and nail for the establishment of a sound effects department at the BBC, only to leave soon after its inauguration to focus on composition and research. This rich, engaging co-production from the Tron and Blood of the Young tracks Oram’s lifelong struggle to gain recognition for her work as an art form while continuously battling against cultural philistinism and misogyny.
Isobel McArthur, who co-wrote the piece with Paul Brotherston (who also directs), is superb as the single-minded artist, whose experimentation proves too radical for conservative sensibilities at the Beeb and elsewhere. The play interlaces significant episodes in Oram’s life with a series of frank addresses to the audience, in which she is self-effacing about her own achievements and despairing of cost-benefit approaches to creativity. In one telling scene, Daphne travels to France to be met with a completely different attitude to her brand of composition. “C’est l’art!” is the response of her French counterpart.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Brotherston’s production is a shade too long and hampered at times by some passages of movement that represent a half-hearted attempt to mirror the strange patterns in Oram’s music. The compelling biographical element is instead enriched by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s detailed set design, a soundtrack by Anneke Kampman, much of which is created live on stage, seamlessly interacting with the text and performances. The four-strong supporting ensemble energetically portrays the peripheral figures in Daphne’s life, while McArthur inspires warmth and admiration for her unconventional heroine.
Touring Scotland to June 2. Bloodoftheyoung.org