Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound @ Tron Theatre

Review by James Hampson | 18 May 2017

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop is something that seems archaic in how forward-thinking it was. In days when the BBC itself has to justify its own right to exist, the idea of it setting up an in-house avant-garde music studio seems absurd. And so arrives this play about Daphne Oram, one of the pioneers of electronic music and sampling techniques, and founder of the Workshop. She has always occupied a lofty, grandmotherly status over experimental music, and so this play would hopefully put some meat on her godlike frame and allow us to access the person we all nod about when she gets mentioned, despite knowing little.

The play reveals effectively nothing about her; it is essentially about the BBC commissioning process in the post-war years. Daphne is a central figure in the play but we never understand what drives her. She is reduced to the cliché of the overworked staffer staying late to pick up the pieces the men are unwilling to do. The play feels like a stage version of Their Finest with moogs. The last ten minutes cover Daphne's reclusive hermit life in a converted oast house, experimenting on her own; times such as this need to be further expanded upon, but are left tantalisingly brief whilst we get an extended insight into the mind of the BBC Director General at the time. Daphne is a passenger in a play about her own life.  

Many of the play's allusions are too obscure. The only reference to the Workshop producing the iconic Doctor Who theme comes with a brief background mention of the series on the radio as the actors move furniture round in dreary slow motion. There are regular nods to Daphne's interest in the occult and spiritual, from Stonehenge to mystical whimsy at how certain frequencies connect us to other dimensions, but these, along with everything else apart from the commissioning process, are never fleshed out.

Isobel McArthur stars as Daphne in an underdeveloped and undeveloping performance – the only thing which differentiates old, weary Daphne from young, energised Daphne is her stature, and her donning a cardigan. There is no insight into how Daphne become such a visionary beyond a weak, played-for-laughs scene involving a séance at a young age. This is a script which, given the large number of monologues Daphne gets, doesn't seem to care what she thinks, or doesn't know.

It would be reasonable to expect the play to feature music heavily and let the audience make up their minds about why Daphne's work was so special, as the script fails to do this. There is painfully little. Granted, Oram's work is mostly small, 30-second tracks pips and blarts but the incidental music uses the same track repeatedly throughout, when there are literally hundreds to choose from. This play has little to offer an audience unless you are deeply, passionately interested in either Daphne Oram or BBC commissioning procedure. Ideally both.

Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound tours to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee throughout May.