As you arrive in the space, the audience is serenaded by a cacophony of sounds which are not precisely music (this is a theme that will become repeated throughout the hour), and once the show begins, the sounds simply stop, as a lone, somewhat bookish-looking individual arrives, and quite literally sets the tone. This smart use of silence - of lack of sound being itself a seductive sound – is indicative of the steely intelligence of music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, who managed to unsettle a generation of kids, and their parents, with tunes that could not easily be identified as being created with any traditional instrument whatsoever.
Hymns For Robots is at its heart a plea for the freedom to get lost in order to find out where you should be.
Hymns For Robots takes us through certain highlights and low points of composer Derbyshire’s life (at least the grace notes), but it’s not remotely necessary to have heard of her to enjoy the play. Indeed, the main pull point for many potential audience members – the fact that she was responsible for the remarkable arrangement of the original Doctor Who theme – is only part of an eventful life ("Did I really write this?" asks an awed composer Ron Grainer upon hearing the iconic sci-fi tune for the first time. "Most of it," is Derbyshire’s wry response).
The stage is cluttered with old-style recording paraphernalia, as well as many references to Foley and sound effects: a wine glass is not merely a vessel with which to get tipsy, and your very first phone call (back in the Fifties, at least) may have looked more like a couple of tin cans strung together. Added to this, there are several subtle gags that are kisses with the iconic BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including an irate listener giving feedback (to coin a phrase) in the voice of a Vogon from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Time slips out of joint as Derbyshire tells us that she sees life being out of tune, a world that has gone wrong. Given that the job interviews we see her endure (at the BBC and Decca, for instance) are stymied by institutional sexism and post-war preoccupations around class, this is in no way surprising. Hymns For Robots is not quite a life story, more a collection of ‘greatest hits’, as Delia recalls the blitz – in which sound inevitably formed her young mind – to a series of not always successful relationships, which are not always consummated (sometimes for painfully obvious reasons).
As Derbyshire, Jessie Coller is precise and coolly controlled (one might almost say composed). We learn about her no-nonsense approach to her work, and her inability to accept work that she considers substandard (she destroys a piece that she is unhappy with, despite the fact that she’s been commissioned to perform it in public within hours. Her need for absolute perfection will finally burn her out. But even in private, she will always be creating strange, haunting music. It is appropriate that in 1964, she worked on Inventions For Radio, a series of electronic sounds to illustrate people describing their dreams.
In 1980, Delia Derbyshire’s original theme for Doctor Who was re-worked for a brash neon age, much to her horror: anything less than perfection was, in her mind, unacceptable. But her perfection took a while to achieve; the joy of working at the Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s is that you can get paid to take a wander down some very long creative corridors. Hymns For Robots is at its heart a prayer for the celebration of mistakes – a plea for the freedom to get lost in order to find out where you should be, to have the space to explore the unexplored so that one can discover something magical. An appropriate theme, given that this year’s Fringe hashtag is Into The Unknown.