It’s no secret that 2021 is going to be the year when audio dramas make a grand return. Given that theatres in the UK are likely to be shut until the early days of summer and the growing screen fatigue we seem to be collectively experiencing, theatre-makers are actively exploring performances that invite the audience member to engage their aural imagination, or simply put – to hear is to see is to believe.
On Record, a 35-minute audio drama written by Cameron Essam & Ella Dorman-Gajic and produced for the ongoing The Living Record Festival, concerns the inner workings of a woman’s mind who struggles with her grasp on reality, grappling with personal demons of her own while helping another woman escape from theirs. With voice performances by Jesse Bateson, Louise Cornelia, Ella Dorman-Gajic, Tyler South, William Shackleton, and Cameron Essam – who also directs and designs the soundscape – the piece gives us a disconcerting glimpse into the many layers of toxic relationships and the conversations they carry within us.
As with any audio play, theatre-makers must negotiate a fine line between doing too much – sound effects arranged haphazardly in an attempt to immerse (read: overwhelm) the listener – or doing too little – treating the auditory senses as a simplistic vessel that can’t be afforded the same intellectual intelligence as the human eye. Luckily for us, On Record manages to find a strong balance between these two ends be delivering an intriguing aural experience that tugs at your emotions and leaves you wondering – if hearing is indeed believing, just how much of what you heard was actually real?
The action of the piece shifts deftly between three spaces – the ‘out’ side of a recording studio where a director and a writer share a candid conversation about croissants, the ‘in’ side of the same studio wherein we hear some voice actors rehearsing for a dramatic radio play and finally, the ‘inside’ of this play itself wherein we meet a case officer at an organization that helps victims of domestic abuse seek refuge and protection against their partners. It’s also here we are introduced to a troubled young woman living with an abusive partner who’s looking for a way out. Some of us who may know a similar story of a friend or a family member will appreciate the realness of the piece – the self-damaging behaviour, the unsettling confrontations and the final escape – and the mixed bag of raw emotions that come with it.
Without revealing too many spoilers, I can tell you that the piece moves between these parallel narratives, giving us a glimpse into the lives of these two characters fighting a deeply personal battle with abusive relationships as well as conversations about the creative process by the ensemble of voice actors, writer and director who, much like the actual production process of On Record, have been commissioned to produce this dramatic radio play for a local arts festival, albeit with a very tight deadline.
I must mention here that it’s this subtle shift between these two parallel narratives – the show and the reality – that is the biggest strength of On Record. Complemented by a tightly edited sound design that combines voice, effects and ambient elements to create a highly distinguished yet subtle aural environment for each space that allows the listener to really visualize the room they are hearing these conversations in. The vocalization of the liminal spaces – an off-hand conversation caught on the studio mic or a glimpse into something we weren’t supposed to hear – adds a nice touch. A special shout out to the deft sound cuts between the running and driving scene that added significantly to the dramatic tension. Although the sound had a little flatness to it, it’s understandable given that On Record’s creative team collaborated and recorded the entire piece remotely during the January lockdown, a commendable feat in itself. Perhaps given more resources and the possibility of in-person creative development, the aurality of the piece can be dramatically increased with the use of binaural microphones to create truly 3D soundscapes, allowing the listener to perceive the orientation and direction of the sounds they are hearing.
The story makes good use of the play-within-a-play model, a reliable narrative convention found in popular dramatic texts like Hamlet, Six Characters In Search of an Author and Noises Off to effectively juxtapose the realities of the voices and the characters they are playing. This also introduces a certain distance (also known as the alienation effect attributed to Bertolt Brecht) to the aural experience. This afforded the listener an opportunity to be aware that they are, in reality, lying on a bed with their eyes closed, inside a dark room with the curtains drawn, listening to some imaginary voices play inside their head. That’s actually how I heard the piece after a long, tiring day of back-to-back Zoom meetings – curled in my bed and letting my ears take me to someplace different than my own reality.
There are strong voice acting performances at play, however, it takes some time for the listener to place different characters and the stakes they share. While the piece manages to create a strong base layer of locations, characters and actions in a mere 30 minutes, it’s the anagnorisis of the story – the point at which a principal character recognizes or discovers another character’s true identity or the true nature of their own circumstances – seems too rushed, a narrative trope associated with similar turns-on-its-head thrillers. More subtle exposition to the big reveal in some of the earlier scenes or developing the piece for a longer duration can help this otherwise wonderfully crafted story to unfurl even better.
To summarize, On Record is a hearty attempt at exploring the reality of our relationships (or conversely, our relationship with reality) that invites us to hear, see and believe – and then turns it all on its head.
You can register and tune in to listen On Record on The Living Record Festival’s website until 22nd February: https://live-stream.zarucchi.com/events/on-record/feed
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 26th January 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★