I’ve been playing “catch up” with 45 North’s audio dramas Written On The Waves for some time now, so I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally reached a point where I’ve been able to listen to all the current content. For my latest double bill I returned to the series 1 finale Cunch and their latest release from series 2, Mooncake. This somewhat oddly named pair needed some prior research as neither of the titles meant anything to me but at least that had the effect of being intriguing.
Cunch according to the Urban Dictionary means “countryside, a place where drug dealers usually go to sell class A drugs away from the police and public”. This soon began to make sense as we follow the journey of a pair of 15 year olds, Janie and Lolita, as they travel to the badlands of rural Chichester in order to run drugs for the former’s boyfriend. At least that’s what Janie claims he is although over the course of the play we come to realise that this is just her hopeful fantasy. While she comes across as the driving force of the pair it is Lolita, caught up in the slipstream, for whom one feels greater empathy. At first it’s all treated as a big adventure but as reality starts to intrude it soon leads to a scary denouement. While they seem to be big on street smarts we are left in no doubt that they are little more than children neglected by their parents and out to substitute family ties with a wild time that just might get them noticed. Their childlike naivety is reinforced by the many references to fairy tales in Maria McKennel’s script as they narrate stories from their childhood on the train (big on the theme of abandonment) and travel into a Sussex bluebell wood where they encounter the mysterious character of Yaga, presumably based on the witch figure from Eastern European folk tales.
Janie and Lolita are touchingly created by Maria McKennel and Alice Vilanculo. We are shown two girls from the inner city who find anything outside their limited outlook incomprehensible; they are, for instance, unable to distinguish between a sheep and a goat and one of them claims never to have heard a basic nursery rhyme of ovine origin. They may be well versed in all the latest street slang (I several times had to have recourse to the aforementioned Urban Dictionary) and claim to understand the world of county lines drug running but are horrified by the whole notion of an animal giving birth. The implicit indictment of a system which has led to this situation is one of the strengths of Maria McKennel’s script; even as we laugh at some of the dialogue (particularly the reactions of Vilanculo/Lolita) we are invited to question how poor parenting and inadequate education have led to this state of affairs. In truth the play runs out of steam towards the finale as the ends are tied up but there’s a good deal of merit before we get there.
One of the regularly strong features of the Written On The Waves project (and Cunch is no exception) has been the intricately created soundscapes created to support the dialogue. In Mooncake this aspect has been totally foregrounded to the point where the sound becomes the dominant feature while the dialogue is of far less importance. Mooncakes are created in East Asian culture to celebrate events such as the Chinese mid-autumn festival. There are many variations, but the essential elements would seem to be a pastry shell filled with sweetened lotus paste and a whole salted egg yolk (the moon) and are somewhat of an acquired taste. It is from the perspective of a mooncake as it is created, baked and shared among friends that we experience this brief audio drama. On the face of it, it’s a strange premise for a play although I don’t think that this is really what it is. Rather it is a sound collage which allows creators Nicola T. Chang and Isabella Leung to highlight aspects of the associated culture(s) and reflect on how the moon has been become a potent symbol for all humans across the globe. Thus, snippets of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata keep surfacing and there is historic sound from the archives referencing the moon landings. More disturbingly there is a thread about how people of Chinese heritage have found themselves blamed for the pandemic (we get Trump’s infamous reference to “the Chinese virus”). This doesn’t sit particularly easily with the rest of the thematic content and maybe belongs in a separate piece of its own. Chang and Leung do a splendid job with the soundscape and easily convince the listener that they are in a bowl being whisked by a fork or hearing the baker’s dialogue through the walls of an oven. It may just be the oddest audio piece I’ve heard over the last sixteen months but has undoubted charm and, at just 20 minutes, doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. I suppose for the sake of completeness I really should source and taste one of these delicacies – as long as I can convince myself it’s a pastry and not a sentient entity!
Cunch and Mooncake are available as part of 45 North’s Written On The Waves project – click here
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