Part lecture, part gig, part comedy, Etherwave is a show about the theremin: an idiosyncratic musical instrument played without physical contact, by moving your hands through an electric field. Unskilled waving yields a comedy woo-woo sound, but a virtuoso performer can coax eerie tones from thin air, equally suited to a horror movie or a 1960s sci-fi serial. It’s also the instrument behind the theme tune to Midsomer Murders – which is just one of the dozens of theremin fun facts you’ll learn during this educational but entertaining show.
Our host, who introduces herself only as Hypnotique, claims she’s the third-best theremist in the UK. I have honestly no idea whether she’s bigging herself up or being self-deprecating; either way, she has plenty of opportunity to demonstrate her skills, in the process proving that the theremin’s repertoire goes far beyond ethereal wailing. Interspersed with the music, there’s a witty and surprisingly interesting lesson on the instrument’s history – and if the slides Hypnotique uses to illustrate her talk seem a little lo-fi and ramshackle, that’s a fair reflection of the story she tells, with its enthusiasts working from build-it-yourself project kits and articles in Popular Electronics magazine.
The “Etherwave” of the show’s title is a technique of Hypnotique’s own invention, which allows her to link up with fellow theremists in America and even Japan. (The Japanese contingent play a miniature hand-held version of the instrument, which is as cute and quirky as it’s bizarre.) I won’t spoil the secret of how the Etherwave works, but I’ll say that building a show around it is a rather audacious piece of marketing; still, it’s a rare treat to hear more than one theremin in concert, and the ensemble pieces they pick to play are surprising ones. Amidst the informative tone of the surrounding material, it’s nice to have some reassurance that theremists do know how to have fun.
As the famous gag goes though, Etherwave hits all the right notes… but not in the right order. The early focus on classical music – which, if we’re honest, is an acquired taste on the theremin – risks alienating the audience before Hypnotique’s enthusiasm has had a chance to win us over. A bit of shameless woo-wooing would be a surer way to break the ice, and there’s always time to bust the stereotypes later. Meanwhile, at the other end of the show, there’s a dramatic piece that sees Hypnotique swooping her whole body around the antennae; it’s a memorable sign-off, but it does rather highlight how controlled and static her playing’s been up to then.
Overall, the show would benefit from a touch of further development and a little more input from a director. But Etherwave is a classic Fringe show – as informative as it’s amusing, and as surprising as it’s entertaining. I hear it might be heading to Brighton next year… and while the theremin may be a hands-off instrument, it’ll be well worth getting your hands on a ticket.