Coventry-based Noctium Theatre’s new show Hymns for Robots tells the story of Delia Derbyshire, a pioneer of early electronic music who is most famous for her arrangement for the Doctor Who theme tune.
A loosely strung together narrative takes us through Derbyshire’s life, from her childhood during the Blitz to her struggles against the dual forces of sexism and conservatism in her career, when she was not only a pioneer as a woman in her field, but as someone who recognised the creative potential of a medium that her employer, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, dismissed as mere ‘special sounds’.
Jessie Coller shines as Delia: smart and spiky, alternately bemused and dismayed by the scepticism of others, their unwillingness to recognise her music as art. As her long-time collaborator Brian Hodgson, Charles Craggs is her deadpan foil, puncturing with perfect timing her often overblown ideas, her tendency to get in her own way. The smartly scripted (and often wry and funny) show doesn’t minimise the obstacles that Derbyshire faced, but nor does it shy away from the fact that even her closest friends recognised she could be her own worst enemy.
The production uses a mix of archival material, video projection and sounds to create an auditory-visual tapestry: her friendship with her gay workmate Hodgson, with whom she regularly holidayed; a brief marriage of convenience for the sake of ‘respectability’; an unwise but passionate affair and her final, long-term relationship with a man who loved her but kept his distance from her music, giving her the freedom she so clearly required.
The stage set, crammed with old tape recorders, cardboard boxes and discarded wine glasses, captures the creative clutter of the workshop where Derbyshire and Hodgson worked their magic with tape and scissors, weaving everything from recordings of nature to glitches in their equipment into their music, painting a world with sound. The show recognises that errors and experiments are an essential ingredient in the alchemy of creation, and quietly mourns the commercialism that put paid to the quirky and often frustrating working methods of its star.
Hymns for Robots is on as part of Brighton Fringe until 18th May. Book tickets here.