DANA MOSS reviews WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE: THE LIBRARIAN
‘Welcome to Night Vale’ continues its tour of Europe with a sell-out show in London’s Union Chapel, Islington.
It is testament to ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ that it has gained enough attention and interest globally to demand live shows across Europe, after previous successes in the USA and Canada. What was once a small bi-monthly American podcast has risen in fame to become one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time. This is down to both the clever writing and the charismatic host Cecil Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin, which shine in a live environment.
The premise for the show has been described as a local American radio station meets Twin Peaks, with its humour being compared to ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and ‘The Mighty Boosh’. Yet it is so much more than merely a sum of its parts, and defies conventional categorisation. The play’s cult following speaks for itself: whilst criticised by many for its weird brand of humour, the writing superbly flits from the darkly comic to the vaguely troubling to the satirical. One particularly notable comment by Cecil during the show, was his musing on “America, the land of the free … or, at least, that is what we tell ourselves”. He links a setting so far removed from the reality of our own lives, whilst also drawing frightening similarities.
Before the show even begins, there is an electric atmosphere in the Union Chapel: an imposing cathedral which perfectly accentuates the gloomy and maverick nature of the show. It begins with an amusing introduction from Meg Bashwiner, who points out the exits in case of emergency before innocently remarking that “if there is no emergency, the only thing we have to worry about is the rest of our lives.” This sets the scene for the rest of the show.
Welcome to Night Vale is surreal, cutting and relentlessly macabre, yet it retains a blithe and comedic outlook. Even though the most ordinary events appear menacing, announcements of gory deaths and Secret Police patrols are made to seem banal.
Whilst little can be revealed about the plot of the live episode, as it is still being performed across Europe, it does exactly what Night Vale does best: thrillingly entertains and spooks. Cecil’s confidence and charm transfer to a live setting with ease, eliciting easy laughs, groans and (on cue) screams from the audience whilst retaining the intimate feeling created from the radio show premise. The true power behind Baldwin’s performance is his ability to ensnare us in the Night Vale community; the audience blindly accepting truths that would have once made us start with confusion or fear.
Other notable performances are from the town’s vaguely malevolent ex-Mayor Pamela Winchell and show creator Joseph Fink as the newest unfortunate to intern at Night Vale radio station. Mary Epworth is excellent as the opening act, playing several of her own songs, and the entire show is backed by Disparition (John Bernstein) whose tracks are used on the podcast as well.
The true success of Welcome to Night Vale is that it leaves so much up to its listener’s interpretation. It may describe the horror of the “semi-reptilian” librarians, but the true fear lies in the image the audience creates for themselves. Its power to effortlessly transport the audience to somewhere completely beyond the bounds of reality, is something that should be truly commended. The audience jumps on every slight in-joke and reference back to old episodes, from the show’s self-conscious mockery of the interns (characters that are as susceptible to sticky endings as the red shirts are in Star Trek) to the growing relationship between Cecil and his scientist boyfriend Carlos. It is a joy to see the collective love the audience has for the show.
Welcome to Night Vale may appear to be an overly demanding commitment for a new listener, with over 50 episodes already available to download for free, yet, its ability to unsettle and entertain in equal measures makes it the perfect new show to commit to as Halloween approaches.
Subedited by Becky Bainbridge.