Swindon Youth Theatre is staging its most ambitious production to date – His Dark Materials, which will be at the Wyvern Theatre at the end of this month.

Based on the acclaimed trilogy by Philip Pullman, it involves a cast of almost 100 young people aged seven to 25, and has been adapted into two two-hour shows by playwright Nicholas Wright.

It tells the story of Lyra and Will, who find themselves embarking on a journey through worlds familiar and unknown. Along the way, they encounter dangerous enemies and fantastical creatures in parallel worlds.

The music has been composed by Swindon-based musician Barry Andrews, of XTC and Shriekback fame. We caught up with him to find out more.

How did you get involved with this project?

Ben Eccles from Sixth Sense, whom I’ve known for some years, asked me. Sixth Sense are located next to Create Studios, where I freelance, upstairs at the Wyvern. So I guess whatever other virtues I possessed as a composer, I was definitely the closest.

Are you a fan of the books?

I am. I read them in one gulp when they came out. Everyone seemed to. Like the deeply inferior Da Vinci/Celestine Prophecy/50 Shades, His Dark Materials was one of those books that was everywhere for a while in the mid-90s. I don’t think they’re all that beautifully written – I’ve never re-read them, for instance – but the plot and the images really sink their teeth in.

Do you have any previous experience in the theatre?

I was Fagin in the old Park North senior high school production of Oliver! and the front end of a pantomime horse. But that was years ago and was, frankly, no help at all.

How much time has it taken to create the score?

I started work properly in August when Ben Occhipinti, the director, presented me with his vast shopping list of music cues and sound effects. I haven’t a clue really how many hours it’s taken since time in the studio obeys different laws. It all passes in a beautiful dream.

Where do you even start on what must have been an overwhelming project?

Yes, it’s two two- hour long pieces – longer than most feature films – plus I was responsible for sound design as well. It became more manageable after we started to give different characters and places different themes – à la Wagner, to whose ghost I made numerous invocations. Thus you have a sexy but dubious Hollywood siren type tune for Mrs Coulter, a metallic drum-heavy beast-fest for Iorek the armoured polar bear (that’s right) and so on.

What was the most challenging part?

Let’s not mince words – the most difficult part was definitely the sound effects.

I think most composers worth their salt could make a decent sound-image of an armoured polar bear (try it, kids!) but a two-second sound that effectively depicts an imaginary knife cutting through the fabric of the Universe is a trickier thing to do well.

Or, hey, spectres killing eight (count ’em) witches or an evil robot fly under a glass. And there’s a thing called an Aleithiometer which is something between an astrolabe, a spinning top and a tarot pack, which resisted me for some time. I ended up recording my pushbike’s back wheel and playing it backwards through a gang of sound processors. You mustn’t think of that when you watch the show, though. It will ruin everything.

And the most enjoyable part?

Definitely getting Rich Millin’s – an ex-Swindononian now in Berlin – huge live drum parts into the tracks. Made everything more vivid and present.

Can you tell us a bit about the score?

Well, since HDM’s world consists of all these parallel universes – all with different quasi-historical features – I felt I needed to avoid anything too specific. I had an operating principle that anything that wasn’t a traditional instrument had to be unrecognisable. Or I would deny all knowledge.

Also the nature of the play seemed to be that Miltonic combination of beauty and terror that people used to call ‘awesome’ (before that just meant ‘quite good’). The plays deal with some heavyweight themes – God, death, love, the nature of reality – to which I’ve tried to do sonic justice. Yeah, dispensing sonic justice… sweet.

Will people be able to buy the soundtrack?

Yes. Email me at shriekback.com. Other drama companies producing HDM can license the music and fx also. There are some excerpts on Soundcloud under Barry Andrews if you want to have a listen.

In HDM, humans have daemons which take the form of animals. What would be your daemon?

I always felt some kind of affinity with the lizard – manic at times then lies around for ages, hairless, loyal, courageous.

What are your favourite inspirations from the stage?

The best thing I ever did see was The Black Rider at the Barbican – the dream team of Robert Wilson, Bill Burroughs and Tom Waits. Really quite a thing.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a number of projects for Create Studios, as well as Shriekback’s auspicious 13th album, a side project which is the synth-pop duo Anaxaton6 (with Mike Tournier from Fluke), and the gesamkunstwerk Vile Homunculus!.

  • His Dark Materials is at the Wyvern from October 31 to November 2. Part I is at 2.30pm and Part II is at 7.30pm. Tickets: £9.50 (£6.50 for under-14s). wyverntheatre.org.uk or 01793 524481.