Delia Debyshire : Standing Wave

Tron Theatre Glasgow. October 2004. Written by Nicola MCCartney, Music by Pippa Murphy, Directed by Katherine Morley

‘Your average play hits its peak with a big speech. It climbs ever upwards and erupts with a torrent of language. Standing Wave, however, is not your average play. Its climax comes, wordlessly and beguilingly, with a piece of music.

Focusing on the life of the late Delia Derbyshire, creative light of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the imaginative presence behind the Dr Who theme tune, the play delivers its emotional kick with a shimmering piece of electronica.

It’s a novel achievement and one that’s due to composer Pippa Murphy as much as playwright Nicola McCartney. They capture something of Derbyshire’s creative life and her era of satellites, space probes and lunar landings when imaginative possibilities seemed limitless.

Derbyshire was a sonic explorer, propelled by a love of mathematics, Catholic chants and abstract noise to prove it was possible to make “beautiful electronic sound”. While Murphy provides the soundtrack for Derbyshire’s experiments, McCartney rewinds through the composer’s life, treating the script like reel-to-reel tape, reversing, splicing and echoing herself to powerful effect.

On Moley Campbell’s set – circular like a tape spool, panelled like a recording studio – Abigail Davies and Luisa Prosser play two incarnations of Derbyshire, their grins evoking a woman whose genius, sensitivity, paranoia and alcoholism would lead to a retreat from public life by the mid-1970s. But instead of a fact-based bio-drama, Standing Wave makes us listen. Directed by Katherine Morley for Reeling & Writhing, it gives us a real sensory understanding of the passions behind a marginalised form of music.

By the end, you can believe the most influential event of November 1963 was not the release of I Want to Hold Your Hand, nor the killing of JFK, but the first airing of Derbyshire’s Dr Who signature tune. It remains mesmerisingly strange.’

Mark Fisher ****