For the last week, in just about every snatched moment I can grasp hold of, I’ve had my head buried in the first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Min Kamp series. It’s utterly gripping, with the intensity that I forget novels can possess until I tumble headlong into another one. And yet it’s so ordinary. Described as an “autobiographical novel”, it charts little more than the day to day fluctuations of its author’s life, from youth through adolescence to adulthood, all in meticulous, banal detail. Whole pages are devoted to cleaning or eating; one long section laboriously outlines a clumsy teenage attempt to smuggle beer into a party.
In a very different way, Chris Goode and Company’s Longwave achieves a similar sort of compelling simplicity. As with the Knausgaard, it’s hard to pin down just what captures the attention and refuses to let it go. The show, first made in 2006 and now reincarnated for a new tour, consists of two men, one radio and no dialogue. There are plenty of words, but none of them are shared between the pair of living, breathing characters. Instead, they belong to the inanimate (or perhaps not as inanimate as the men might hope) third protagonist, humming away menacingly in the corner of the room.
For reasons never made clear, the two men are away from home, holed up together in a shed in what appears to be a cruelly inhospitable landscape. We first see them in bright yellow protective gear, retrieving and proceeding to conduct experiments on an unresponsive, haggis-shaped object. We are instantly in the realm of physical comedy, with performers Jamie Wood and Tom Lyall making a sublimely silly double act. They poke, they prod, they throw. The subject of their experiment is rolled, jabbed, sent into the air with a mini parachute – Lyall even tentatively licks it. The lab isn’t all that different from the playground.
But Longwave is about much more than straightforward tomfoolery. As the piece goes on, we witness the regular rhythm of the men’s shared life, from the lucky dip of each evening’s tinned dinner – Lyall invariably ends up with the raw deal – to the little rituals they indulge in either side of the curtain that provides their only privacy. Lyall sketches delicate outlines of birds; Wood clumsily unfolds a massive map of the world. Both long for elsewhere.
And it’s that silent sense of longing, along with the wacky but utterly charming companionship they find in one another, that really makes the piece sing – or crackle, as the mood of the wireless dictates. As the radio takes on a life of its own and this little isolated world the pair have made for themselves begins to collapse in on itself, forcing them to either step into the unknown or stay behind, Goode and his collaborators reveal themselves to be expert manipulators of the stage’s affective technologies. We know little about these men beyond the small routines of their daily life, yet our hearts begin to crack open for them.
The whole thing is gorgeously offbeat, from the shed’s ragtag array of objects to the strange and ambiguous scenario in which the two central characters find themselves, but actually it’s the ordinariness that turns our emotional machinery. It’s the human bond, it’s the moments of hidden yearning and loss, it’s the way in which a shared routine establishes itself even in the oddest of circumstances. And it’s how even the most hackneyed and familiar of cheesy love songs can suddenly kick us full in the guts.