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Radio review: U.Me: The musical, and A Life in Music

21 May 2021


U.Me: The musical was broadcast on the World Service (Wednesday of last week)

U.Me: The musical was broadcast on the World Service (Wednesday of last week)

AFTER the lockdown come the literature, the memoirs, and the images. Less expected is a lockdown musical; but, through the multi-tasking powers of radio, we now have U.Me: The musical, which had its première on the World Service (Wednesday of last week) and makes full use of the potential — provided uniquely by radio — for complex and layered auditory scenes. That it was created at all represents a triumph over multiple obstacles achieved by the creative and production team, together with the socially distanced forces of the BBC Philharmonic and members of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.

The story itself is an everyday story of romance in a time of pandemic: girl Zooms boy, boy’s best friend dies of Covid, etc. Yet the drama is swept along by a libretto consisting of not so much a stream as a torrent of consciousness from the characters. There are no big numbers here, and little change of literary register between speech and song.

This is not to say that the hour-long production is formless. There are distinct “movements” here; and our attention to the subtleties of the book by Theo Jamieson and Simon Pitts is prompted by a continuous animation that turns this into U.Me into a multi-media affair.

And yet, for all the wizardry, the project failed to achieve that artistic miracle of lifting our imaginations beyond our own and the characters’ confinements. They are supposed to be in London and Kyoto, but they could have been living in the next street from one another. So could we; and we would still have had to witness it all on our computer screens. Can great art be created in such circumstances? We shall have to wait and see.

As well as creative responses to lockdown, there are, one assumes, a multitude of research proposals currently in draft, focusing on the social consequences of enforced confinement. How, for instance, will infants have coped in a world without public music-making? As highlighted in A Life in Music (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), musical engagement starts in the womb, and is strongly person-directed. Play a baby a lullaby on an electronic device, and it won’t be interested; sing one in person, and it will be enthralled.

This series happily does not simply retread the neuro-scientific evidence around music and its developmental value. The presenter, Jude Rogers, makes it personal as she identifies her own musical-emotional triggers, and discusses with the Nigerian musician Femi Kuti his relationship with a father who appeared uninterested in sharing his own musical enthusiasms with his son.

Most intriguing was the assertion that music lessons teach a child the benefits of self-discipline and delayed gratification: a repackaging of ancient tropes on the moral benefits of music. It is a lovely thought; but witnesses to the recent exchanges in one Facebook group of choral singers who have been knocking seven bells out of one another might beg to differ.

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