Writer: Jaclyn Backhaus
Director: Jessica Rose McVay
Seeing the world from a new perspective is something we can all relate to in the past year as the familiar streets and busy centres rapidly emptied of the activities that had long sustained them. But imagine seeing the surface for the first time after a life lived entirely underwater just as Jaclyn Backhaus’ characters do in new sci-fi audio audiodrama The Giant Pacific Octopus Maritime School available from 45North and Ellie Keel Productions.
Fed-up with life on their underwater base, Priya and best friend Ilya struggle to complete their history assignment on the flood and the great descent 20-years before and instead find a mysterious hidden portal in their school basement. Summoned to see Dr Seema Dawson, Priya’s mum, the three escape to the surface for a brief visit setting in motion a chain of events that questions the structure and purpose of their limited society. But will Emma, the Computerised Utilitarian Support System, thwart their plans?
Backhaus’ 40-minute drama is an instantly immersive experience as the exhausted Priya is woken abruptly by Emma in the opening moments of the story and sends her off to school. Within the first five minutes, the audience is given the parameters of Backhaus’ creation; a place run by computer systems, the migration of the human population below the sea following a series of natural disasters which has now established a complex infrastructure of research and education facilities, schools and even a tube-like transport network called The Conveyor to move them around.
The story itself is equally well told, if a little rapid in places, exploring concepts of artificially constructed realities, the value of the natural world and the simplicity of human needs in the face of overwhelming technological control. The nostalgia for the earth, demonstrated by Seema in the second half of the story as she takes her daughter and parentless friend on an adventure contrasts well with the Emma-controlled intensity of the underwater base that is made to seem increasingly unwieldy as events unfold.
Sound is crucial to the engaging storytelling and Elisheba Ittoop has excelled in the creation of different locations and moods within The Giant Pacific Octopus Maritime School. From the technological sounds of Emma’s slightly synthetic voice that warps and crackles in the later sections to the hubbub of school classrooms, the eerie loneliness of the basement and the race to the surface where waves and seagulls add a freshness to the soundscape, Ittoop’s work creates vivid images that draw the listener in.
A longer piece would give Amita Suman’s Priya, Sam Crerar’s Ilya and Manjinder Virk’s Seema the opportunity to develop a little more characterisation but they create likeable rebels that gain the audience’s sympathy and will to succeed. Adjoa Andoh’s Emma is excellent, offering a range of flat tones that suggest maternal care, knowledgeable information service and, later, a creation wholly invested in sustaining the society that defers to her entirely.
The title is a little cutesy and the characters overcome their obstacles with too little jeopardy, giving the story an abrupt conclusion that could have been further explored in an extra 10-minutes on the running time, but Backhaus along with Director Jessica Rose McVay have created an enjoyable drama that seems to beg for a second episode or even a series to discover what happens when the old and new worlds collide.