There’s been a bit of a vogue lately for online theatre that is site specific. If this seems to be slightly self-contradictory the idea is that the audience finds the location rather than the production. One of the early pioneers in this field, Darkfield Radio, have now released several examples of this new genre including the trilogy Knot which is supposed to be listened to sitting on a park bench, in the front seat of a car and in a living room and there’s been an upsurge in plays that take place while you walk in a particular area such as those offered by Walk This Play (none of which, alas, are near enough for me to take advantage of them). The BBC were experimenting with this format way back in 2017 and with Pod Plays released five short audio pieces set and preferably listened to in different locations. Three take place at home and two outside your own four walls but in places that are generally accessible; the titles are just bald statements of location.
These brief scenes (nothing is longer than six minutes) are essentially little more than sketches but nevertheless boast some top acting talent in, among others, Indira Varma, George Mackay and Sandy Greirson; “you” also become a character in the drama. They have largely been produced with trying out the capabilities of binaural sound in mind; headphones are therefore essential equipment to get the full effect. Catherine Robinson is responsible for the sound design in each case and provides a high quality experience regardless of the playlet’s content. Although there’s no particular order I chose to follow the numbering system on the BBC website as follows:-
- Living Room (Can’t Get You Out Of My Head) This is probably the cleverest of the five in demonstrating how the exciting sound medium works. Two best friends examine the inside of each other’s heads and find all sorts of bits and pieces in there including memories, snatches of songs, half remembered ideas and a smattering of feelings. It’s a clever conceit by Charlotte Bogard Macleod taken to new levels by the distribution of aural effects and the depth of the sound field. I could have done with more of this one as I was just starting to enjoy it when it ended.
- Bed For this piece it is best not only to be in the room but lying down, whereupon you are taken on a journey all to the soothing tones of what appears to be a pair of medics… but could be mechanics. Along the way bits of your anatomy will come adrift but that’s nothing to worry about. Ed Harris’ dark script has a solution – of sorts – and in any case “you” may not quite be who (or what) you think you are. A little bit Dark Mirror in tone this is a playlet which creeps up on you from behind.
- Pub There’s a strong vein of surrealism which runs across all the pieces, none more so than this which asks you to take a trip to your local. Here you will be next to that bloke at the bar who has a huge order to relay to the barmaid and in this case it is full of increasingly bizarre drinks combinations. And the barmaid can’t actually make out who it is he’s buying the drinks for. It’s a quirky piece by Timothy X Atack and although I cheated slightly by listening in the pub garden rather than in the bar itself there was a nice sense of atmosphere which made me feel as if I was inside.
- Park More open air listening which can be done while sitting but probably has more impetus if you’re on the move. In this one from Lee Mattinson, you’re a special agent (code name Top Cat) on a secret horticultural mission. The problem is that your fellow agents are not particularly sure what they are doing which puts you at a bit of a disadvantage. It works as a spoof but as a demonstration of the sound capabilities I felt this was the least successful of the five
- Bathroom Unless you can arrange a quick house party (probably not advisable at the moment) you’re going to have to let the sound design do the heavy lifting in this one – fortunately it is very well executed. You have actually left the party for some peace and quiet in the smallest room in the house. If only that pesky fly would stop buzzing around and, even more urgently, stop its incessant prattling. Yes, we’re back in surrealworld again as Ben Lewis’s script makes the impossible possible. Another short winner which could have done with being longer.
These five short pieces won’t make any great demands on either your time or your intellect but are a fun way to experience something a bit different. Making this sort of site specific theatre is always going to be tricky confined as it is to generic locations, but it will make you look at your surroundings in ways that are rather different from the norm. And the entertaining possibilities of binaural sound make these sort of pieces an exciting sound experience which raises them above the average.
Pod Plays is available on the BBC website – click here
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