Thursday, 13 November 2014

Review: Welcome to Night Vale - live at the Shepherd's Bush O2 Empire

Welcome to Night Vale had me at ‘hello.’

Well, it really had me at the introduction to its first episode:

‘A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.’

Night Vale is a podcast, written and produced by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. It’s the fictional news show of a fictional town out in the vast American desert: a town where any conspiracy theory can be true. Black helicopters circle above, earthquakes seem to show up on instruments but can’t be felt by the inhabitants, and agents from a vague-yet-menacing government agency attend press conferences but never say a word.

It’s all narrated in the deep, warm, sonorous voice of Cecil, the radio host who manages to make everything seem perfectly normal. Sentient glow clouds, women giving birth to detached hands instead of babies, houses which don’t exist (‘It seems like it exists, like it’s right there when you look at it...’), all are discussed so calmly it almost tricks you into missing the aberrations.

I love it. The laid-back, understated humour, the surrealism, the gently meandering plot lines. I have been an addict for over a year now, and I actively look forward to the 1st and 15th of every month, when a new instalment will be posted online.

So when they announced that they were planning a European tour, I had to go.

The rather aptly blood-red theatre...
When I arrived at the Shepherd’s Bush O2 Empire an hour before the show was due to begin, the queue for the unreserved seating was already wrapped around the back of the theatre. It was a chilly night, with threatening rain, and you know what? It was the nicest queue I’ve ever stood in.

The only thing I can compare it to was the energy in the air when I went to see John Green the last time he came to the UK. There was a buzz of anticipation, and underneath that, there was camaraderie. We chatted and smiled, complimented those who had come in costume, and couldn’t wait for the show to begin.

Purple and black was the theme. Some people had come in Night Vale shirts or hoodies, some in lab coats – two ladies I sat next to were dressed as librarians, blood on their mouths and gore-stained copies of Helen Hunt’s biography (one of the few biographies stocked by the Night Vale Public Library) in their hands. Everywhere I looked, the show’s purple-eyed logo blinked out at me, printed on clothing or drawn on people’s foreheads. Most of the audience were in their 20s and 30s, but there were a few families and older groups as well. We’re a mixed bunch, us Night Vale fans.

The show was The Librarian, an episode written for live performance – it’ll be recorded and sold early next year. I hadn’t been entirely sure of what to expect: how could one person and a few guests standing on a stage talking be that interesting?

Cecil Baldwin. Photo: Liezl Espitona.
I had reckoned without the formidable skills of actor Cecil Baldwin, who plays the narrator of the same name. At first dwarfed by the big stage, he drew us in with the skill of a born storyteller, and kept us spellbound for an hour. There were a few visitors, including both writers making appearances as a ghostly presence and an intern, but mostly it was just Cecil – and it worked perfectly.

Often when comedies do live shows, the temptation is to wheel everything out at expense of coherency. Every character needs an appearance or a name-check, which is fun but exhausting. Here, the writers struck the perfect balance: The Librarian managed to get in a few in-jokes (horoscopes, the community calendar, a mention of Steve Carlsberg), but was admirably restrained, focussing on the main issue of an escaped librarian.

From the sarcastic and funny opening spiel from ‘proverb girl’ Meg Bashwiner (‘We all like to use our phones. I use mine to call my mom. Please don’t do that during the show – call my mom, I mean. She would be very confused.’) to the weather by musician Mary Epworth and the brief moments of audience participation, The Librarian was a brilliant experience.

If you get the chance to see these guys live, do it without hesitation. If you don’t…well, you can still listen to the show. Go on. Go and listen to it. Just the pilot. You can do it here.

Agree? Disagree? Want to gush at another Night Vale fan? Leave a comment!

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