Welcome to Night Vale
Albert Hall, Manchester, 24/09/2015
Podcasts are simply radio for our on demand times, so it’s appropriate that one of the more popular shows purports to be the broadcasts from a community station situated in an otherworldly part of the American Midwest. Welcome to Night Vale, with its mix of offbeat humour and paranormal horror, has attracted a secret but dedicated following, gathering on Tumblr tags and Reddit threads, and has expanded its tendrils into a forthcoming novel and this, its latest live tour.
If, like me, you’re not a Night Vale aficionado, walking into a packed Albert Hall (dodging the occasional cosplayer) can feel like you’re entering a party where everyone knows each other except you. However, this disappates when Meg Bashwiner takes the stage for the usual theatre announcements, done in the Night Vale style. In Night Vale, jokes are quirky without being irksome, and the writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are masters of the non-sequiter. The script is ostensibly a murder mystery, but in practice it’s an off-kilter monologue interspersed with gags and skits, and is no less strong for it. I’m reluctant to give away plot details and surprises, considering the plea from Bashwiner to keep the show off the internet until the tour is done, but star Cecil Baldwin is joined briefly by other characters, which adds some variety to the proceedings. Not that Baldwin needs it, as he has a perfect radio voice, combined with great comedic sendsibility.
In the main, the show was like attending a recording of a radio comedy. The performers had scripts in hand, there was no set, limited lighting, and the focus was on the words, not the action. However, there were many flourishes which elevated it into an actual live experience, as opposed to a dry run for an eventual download. When the show moved away from fake public service announcements and local news and back into the plot, it relied on audience interaction and lightly-mocked tropes rather than the narrative twists and turns expected from the murder mystery genre. The show was self-reflexive enough to point this out, which is typical of the charm and intelligence throughout. There was also live accompaniment from Disparition, who also provides music for the podcast. While it helps preserve the atmosphere of Welcome to Night Vale, it wasn’t a strong score, norwas the laptop-driven electronic strangeness a particularly interesting live performance.
A regular feature of the show is The Weather, which actually a song from an otherwise under-the-radar artist. On this tour, The Weather is the gifted Jason Webley, accordionist, guitarist, and returning from an extended break from performance. He played a short support set before the show proper, and is the perfect artist for this endeavour. His songs and patter move effortlessly between comedy and pathos, and he is an energetic and inclusive live presence, encouraging the crowd to clap and stomp along to his gypsy folk.
I saw a touring production of The Mousetrap a little while ago, another murder mystery where the details are meant to be kept within the theatre walls, but I had a far better time with Welcome to Night Vale. Try the podcast out, and perhaps by the time the show rolls back through town you’ll consider yourself a Night Vale citizen, and rush to join your community around the wireless.
James D Ward