As a stylised biopic of Daphne Oram, the co-founder and first director of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound does not disappoint. As an innovative take on the storytelling potential of electronic music, inspired by one woman’s belief in the storytelling potential of electronic music, it is even better.
Electronic music sits at the heart of this new production by Glasgow-based ensemble company Blood of the Young, in no small part due to its live score by electronic sound artist and composer Anneke Kampman of Conquering Animal Sound. Kampman skilfully weaves trippy, dreamlike sequences and sped-up, slowed-down refrains to soundtrack montages, flash forwards and – in one of the play’s most effective sequences – the exhausted Oram’s half-dreamt hallucinations.
Featuring a cast of five, none of whom leave the stage during the play’s one hour and 40 minute running time (co-writer Isobel McArthur plays Oram while the rest of the roles – male and female – are performed by the ensemble of Robin Hellier, David James Kirkwood, Dylan Read and Matthew Seagar), Daphne Oram pins much of its coherence on the actors’ abilities to effectively embody a quickly rotating cast of family members, BBC bureaucrats, actors, musicians and an eccentric French composer with just an accent, an apron or a change in the way in which they carry themselves. It’s hard to put into words just how much of a joy it is to watch the ensemble at work: there’s a particularly hilarious scene in which the four play an entire orchestra without the use of props (ably soundtracked by Kampman, of course); but Read’s turns as the medium who inspired a teenage Daphne to pursue a career in music, as the composer Edgard Varèse and as the comic relief in an early incarnation of the Radiophonic Workshop in particular had me shrieking with laughter.
That’s not to say that McArthur, playing a single character, has an easy job: it takes serious talent to convincingly portray the eccentric, brilliant Oram from a young girl sketching on her parents’ kitchen floor, to the dedicated woman who strove for sonic innovation in the face of years of reluctance from her employers, to the Oram of her later years continuing to innovate and reluctant to accept the label of pioneer. McArthur captures it all with a hunch of the shoulders, a change in inflection and adding a mustard-coloured cardigan to her simple outfit, and manages to completely charm throughout.
Oram ultimately quit the BBC less than a year into the Workshop’s operation, dissatisfied with what she saw as a lack of institutional support and so that she could pursue her own projects. Those projects (a book, further composition and research into what became known as the ‘Oramics’ drawn sound technique) get short shrift given the play’s running time and just how fascinating Oram’s life story was, but as McArthur’s Daphne ultimately reminds the audience: none of us ultimately live out the entirety of our ambitions.
Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound is on at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 13th May as part of Mayfesto 2017, before touring throughout Scotland until 2nd June. For more information, and to book, visit the Tron Theatre website.