Down an anonymous towpath walk, where strange waters flow slow and boats bob on a current of old and placid England, a Walker stops by the side of the Gadfly. Its metal hull is rusting and its paintwork is encrusted with moss, and there, miles outside the hulking city, sits a Radioman cocooned in vintage hardware, sending out a faint broadcast on the summer airwaves.
That’s the setting for Felix Trench’s short-story cum monologue, moored close to the confluence of Alan Garner and Arthur Ransom, within broadcast range of Scarfolk and of Belbury. Trench’s narrator dips his head into the boat and meets the decrepit Radioman, hunched at his mixing desk, miles of obscure hardware and media coiled around him. Like any good Coot he brings him food, and soon he’s visiting often, in the way that good Coots do, bringing a little bundle of vittles and not asking too many questions. And of course, he’s soon wound in, and of course, there’s more to the SS Gadfly and its crepuscular captain than meets the eye.
There are obvious and well-realised folksy qualities to its setting and its imagery, there are certainly strands of Daniel Kitson’s C-90 or Analog.Ue here, but it also reaches further. As the Walker is pulled into Radioman’s world the Gadfly becomes like the Machine of H G Well’s Time Machine, seasons flickering under its door and time for the traveller suspending and stretching out towards the black sandy shores of eventual annihilation. Trench describes the Walker’s journey in an ecstatic paean to music, music from all cultures and time periods, ‘cut[ting] through the ages chasing the beat’. There’s just enough weird menace to keep Father Twee at the door, just enough of the unknown and unknowable.
Trench’s story is a classic fantasy of discovery and nostalgia, built from the same yearning components as Kenneth Graham or the summer stories of A A Milne. It’s the story of a quiet byway outside the concrete city, where something wonderful is preserved in a musty, magical hobbyism. In a time when it’s hard to feel positive about anything quintessentially English, Radioman reminds us that there’s a nostalgia that breeds happiness, integrity and transcendence as well as blinkered nationalism and bile.
It’s presented simply and sparely here, obviously still in gestation, but director Tom Crowley keeps its rhythms rising and falling like a river-lock, and David Knight’s onstage musical accompaniment is the perfect mix of fuzzy, remote electronics and suggestive snatches of song. If Trench’s accent is a little buttoned up in the early moments, all the better for suggesting those period paperbacks held together with browning sellotape and handed out in distant summer English lessons, and it unfolds brilliantly into the apocalyptic poetry of the final sections.
Moored briefly at the King’s Head Theatre, Trench’s quiet gem is off again and cut out of sight round the next river bend. Next time it comes in view, make sure you step on board.