Synthesised music is so commonplace these days, it's hard to imagine how wondrous – miraculous – it must at first have seemed. What was it like to experience a new sound, found nowhere in nature, which no living creature had ever heard before? Hymns for Robots, a loose biography of famous musician Delia Derbyshire, successfully captures that sense of awe and magic… and delivers plenty of humour too, in a quirky, offbeat and stylish production.
Derbyshire is most famous for producing the original Doctor Who theme tune, and we duly hear the story of exactly how those swooping sounds were made. But this show, like Derbyshire's life, is about far more than that. Its starts with her childhood in blitz-torn Coventry – air-raid sirens, she said, were the first artificial sounds she heard – and progresses through the early days of the BBC's famed Radiophonic Workshop, up to her later life amidst the quiet of Cumbria.
Not all of the detail is entirely true to life; this isn't a biography exactly, so much as an imagined character study. And actor Jessie Coller makes that character a formidable one: self-assured in her own vocation, untroubled by apparent obstacles, and willing to go wherever life takes her. The male-dominated establishment is amusingly represented by a single recorded voice, and Coller is joined on stage by Charles Craggs, who stands surrounded by oscilloscopes and vintage recording equipment as he creates the live accompaniment to the show.
The action is physical, and often whimsical: my favourite moments included a hilariously out-of-place parody of a mobile phone call, and a menagerie of animal sounds summoned from a box. But it's informative too, as Delia explains the unexpectedly mechanical techniques underpinning the workshop's early success. And somewhere in there, there's a thoughtful message – something about how creativity often happens by accident, and genius can't be squeezed out on demand.
In the end though, what sticks in my mind is the sense of reverent wonder – the impression that Delia's self-destructive obsession is not just understandable, but necessary and right. In a new age of discovery and excitement, she shares the age-old dream of composers: the conviction that if she can find the perfect note, it will lift her up to touch the stars.