‘Radio is a comfortably all-purpose medium, still consumed in quantity by nine out of ten of us in the UK, held by its variety of forms. A phone-in brings real voices, sharing raw experience. A documentary offers evidence for a point of view. A play shows life reframed by art. Occasionally, however, something will take you across the line between hearing and listening, and drop you suddenly into comprehension.
The Ballad of the Blade was that kind of programme. The ballad form, where stories are drawn from real life, but pared to poetic essence, has been present in British radio for about 80 years, from the work of DG Bridson, Olive Shapley and Joan Littlewood in Manchester in the 1940s and 1950s, and, famously, the Radio Ballads, made by Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s, to a revisiting of the form by Matt Thompson in the 1980s, recreated by Radio 2 in this century. Here, the poet Momtaza Mehri did it differently, without music but using rhythmic speech between real words, telling the story of knife crime through young British men who know it.
We may think we are already aware of it, have heard it endlessly discussed, debated, deplored. Mehri brought us right into it. The linking voice was female, that of the blade itself. “I can turn a park into a graveyard,” it said. Men’s voices spoke of a knife as an emblem of being grown up, of masculinity, belonging. Of starting carrying at age 8, of being rich at 17 through robbery and selling weed, going to prison, going to funerals. There was a mother whose teenage son, the boy she’d brought up, “me and him against the world”, was fatally stabbed a year ago. Always there, narrating, the blade, ground sharp, stabbing into memory with every word.’ (The Times on Ballad Of The Blade, BBC Radio 4)
‘Beautifully performed by its young cast, John Retallack and George Mann’s production finds a physical language – a mix of Frantic Assembly and Gecko style movement– to match the brawny verve of Sheers’ poetry, and the interplay between those two elements and Jon Nicholls’ delicate sound design is particularly effective. There are times when the density of the experience makes it hard to endure, but like Sheers’ verse it develops its own rhythm and the physical comes to rest in a still, haunted silence. Heartbreaking.” (Guardian on Pink Mist, Bristol Old Vic)
‘Jon Nicholls’ sound design is complex and crucial’ (Observer on Pink Mist, Bristol Old Vic)
‘Bracken Moor‘s profoundly unsettling atmosphere owes much to Jon Nicholls’ sound design and score; the play is accompanied throughout by barely perceptible sounds and music, maintaining a palpable sense of dread punctuated by moments of intense shock’ (Exeunt Magazine on Bracken Moor, Shared Experience)
‘…seems to break and shatter from the radio into the room…’ (Radio 4 Pick Of The Week on Erebus)
‘…composer and sound designer Jon Nicholls treats us to a superbly atmospheric soundtrack..’ (ReviewsHub on Richard III, West Yorkshire Playhouse)
“In Ellen McDougall’s playful production, ink becomes blood, balloons turn into a monster’s head, and the wonderfully relaxed, inventive cast hand the story around like children playing pass the parcel at a birthday party. Ana Inés Jabares Pita’s design conjures portholes and ships, and Jon Nicholls’ score and sound design subtly racks up the tension.” (Guardian on Idomeneus at the Gate)
‘…Jon really understands how radio works…he works quickly, his music is fantastic, and he is great to work with…’ (Jeremy Mortimer, Executive Head, BBC Radio Drama)
‘…a triumph of aural choreography…’ (The Stage on Radio 3, The Time Machine)
‘Jon Nicholls’s sound design steers through the variety of this new New York, with klezmer and rag and blues’ (Observer on Intimate Apparel)
‘..Working with these stories was like a fabulous cross between theatre, film, and reading – a new kind of form. I love the way that Jon runs with an idea, immersing himself in the words so much that he brings the story to life. It’s all very subtle, like a book’s pages opening on their own. There is something magical and mysterious about the whole process, the world of sound…Strangely too, I find reading them with the soundtrack a very different experience to reading them on my own. It’s as if the sound allows me to lose myself and become my character. The sound is company, so I feel bolder, cheekier…’ (poet and performer Jackie Kay, on the experience of collaborating with Jon on Wish I Was Here)