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Hymns For Robots – Theatre Review

Delia Derbyshire. Not a name you might necessarily recognise. But you’ll know her most famous work. For 17 years, it used to howl around the nation’s living rooms at Saturday teatimes, heralding the start of an adventure in time and space.

How about the Radiophonic Workshop? Now, there’s a name that might conjure up some images, stir up some vestigial or dormant memories. Chances are that you might be more familiar with the boffins and wunderkinds of Maida Vale, wizards and architects of sound. They were once so well known that when the Queen was asked about it, she replied “Radiophonic Workshop? Ah yes, Doctor Who.”

Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop are inextricably linked, no doubt by massive winding loops of tape. Derbyshire was given the task in 1963 of bringing life to composer Ron Grainer’s theme tune for a new TV science-fiction serial. When she played back what she’d put together, Grainer asked “Did I really write this?”, to which Derbyshire replied “Most of it”. Yes, Derbyshire is known for bringing us the original version of the famous Doctor Who music, but she’s so much more than that.

Credit: Arnim Freiss / Noctium

In fact, she’s actually been seen as being massively influential to a generation of musical artists, from Aphex Twin to the Chemical Brothers and Orbital. She’s so revered amongst them that she’s been cited as effectively being the mother of electronica and dance music. However, Derbyshire never truly got due credit in her lifetime, and ended up without the proper recognition of the effect she had upon shaping 20th Century music with her groundbreaking, experimental work in what the BBC called “special sound”.

Derbyshire passed away in 2001, having suffered renal failure. She was on the verge of a potential comeback from her self-imposed isolation, after having been offered the chance to reunite with other members of the Radiophonic Workshop to perform for a live project, Generic Sci-Fi Quarry. Since her passing, her true place in musical history has started to finally become acknowledged, and in 2002, a radio play about her early days at the Radiophonic Workshop starring Sophie Thompson – Blue Veils and Golden Sands – came to Radio 4.

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When she died, 267 tapes were found in her attic, packed in hundreds of cereal boxes, her entire life’s work. This idea is the starting point for Hymns For Robots – written and directed by Connor Alexander – a look back through Derbyshire’s life and career, produced by Noctium, a Coventry-based theatre company. With Derbyshire having hailed from Coventry herself, it feels appropriate to have Noctium bring her life to the stage in a wonderful piece of performance art, taking a non-linear examination of the story of the mother of modern music.

The staging is minimal but effective – a series of reel-to-reel tape machines are dotted around the stage area, along with piles of magnetic tape being strewn over the floor, as well as being fashioned into flowers. Chairs, books and wine glasses provide extra decoration. Oscillators and other electronic equipment are there not only to draw your attention to her work, but to also play a part in proceedings, as they provide the soundscape for the piece throughout.

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Across the backdrop, a projection of sine waves, again reminding us strongly and visually of Derbyshire’s relationship with sound. A screen is used strategically to punctuate and highlight certain moments during the performance, such as when Derbyshire’s childhood memories of the Coventry Blitz of 1940 come up, or using fragments of material that were filmed for the Doctor Who opening titles from 1963 when talking about her music and passion for exploring sound, including her time at the Radiophonic Workshop, when she really found herself.

Delia Derbyshire herself is embodied by Jes Rowe (played by Jessie Coller at some other venues), who gives us a flavour of the show’s subject, without trying to do a carbon copy of her; as Derbyshire will be mostly unknown as a person to many of the audience members, it gives Rowe a clean slate to not feel obligated to bring us a strict impersonation of her, but instead an essence, encapsulating what she was, and also using some of Derbyshire’s own words to let her speak for herself. The choice of giving her a Pierrot-esque make-up is a very interesting choice, and puts us in mind of the point when Derbyshire describes herself as being a “ghost in the machine”.

Credit: Anrim Freiss / Noctium

Alongside Rowe is Charles Craggs, who portrays Brian Hodgson, a colleague of Derbyshire’s from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and the person who devised the famous TARDIS sound by running a front door key up the strings of a piano frame. Craggs is beautifully dry, deadpan and understated throughout, providing a counterpoint for Rowe, as well as being responsible for using the equipment on stage to provide the audio backdrop for proceedings.

The title of the show is a reference to her piece ‘Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO’, which was written for the BBC anthology series Out Of The Unknown, in ‘The Prophet’, an adaptation of an Isaac Asimov story – ‘Reason’ – where robots find religion and sing a song of praise and worship. While the episode no longer exists, the track in question thankfully does, and is a prime example of the sort of electronica which Derbyshire excelled at.

The almost constant soundscape we get throughout the performance is deeply atmospheric, and brings us sounds both Radiophonic and Radiophonic-esque. It certainly helps to drive home just what Derbyshire was responsible for putting together and creating, and the design of the soundtrack used here is particularly effective where a simple act of taking a deep breath is looped, modulated and amplified to the point where it becomes overwhelming and draws attention to the claustrophobia and isolation which was felt by Derbyshire when she moved away from London and up to Cumbria.

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Although Derbyshire’s life had moments of sadness to it, Hymns For Robots gives us a balanced overview of her, bringing us moments of great joy which offset the less happy times she went through. At the end of the show, Rowe’s speech blends into Derbyshire’s own words, appearing on screen in archive clips, which all meld into a Radiophonic symphony, bringing us the perfect climax to proceedings, letting us see the real person who, for so many, would otherwise be anonymous.

Hymns For Robots really is a joyous, life affirming experience, and a celebration of someone whose accomplishments appear to have been unfairly overlooked for so many years. Hopefully, this piece will go a very long way towards setting that right. It’s a fitting tribute to a true pioneer who was outstanding in her field. A touching, deeply affecting story, with wobbulator and feelings both turned up to maximum, it’s a must-see, as well as must-hear.

We saw Hymns For Robots at the the Midlands Arts Centre. It has finished its 2019 tour, but keep an eye on Noctium’s website for future events.

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