Take a stroll along the canals of East London, and you’ll see any number of curious sights. Scuppered, half-submerged ships spout plant life, while hirsute hipsters crew renovated barges clad in spray paint, blasting techno from speakers welded to the prow. Come to think of it, ‘The Hipsters of Hackney Wick’ is a great title for a children’s story.
Writer and performer Felix Trench channels that feeling into this meandering monologue. There’s the sense of taking a long walk along the towpaths of a late summer evening, of strange things glimpsed through the brambles. There’s the cosmic-weirdness-in-idyllic-surroundings of the permanently scarring kid’s TV classic Children of the Stones and the unsettling backyard black magic of Neil Gaiman. Most closely, it’s reminiscent of Stuart Bowden’s unclassifiable solo shows, which blend the same elements – live-looped music, skewed perspectives, an uplifting brand of bleakness – into something altogether more heartfelt.
This, though, is the story of an insouciant Walker whose ramblings bring him to the Gadfly, a decrepit, moss-strewn canal boat and home of the hermitic, MiniDisc-hoarding Radioman. Entombed alive with a cargo of music from every age and genre, he DJs through eternity – a pursuit stuck midway between being a beloved hobby and a punishment from some Greek hell. Inevitably, the Walker finds himself drawn in, and things take a sudden turn for the nightmarish, and then another turn towards the twee.
The show has had a long development period, with a five year voyage taking it around a number of other leading pub theatres before berthing at the Old Red Lion. There’s a sense, too, that it could keep on developing, and that the company sees the piece as a Gesamtkunstwerk, as much art installation as theatre. Though it represents an exciting collaboration between artists across disciplines, the various elements aren’t in balance.
Composers David Knight and Odinn Orn Hilmarsson join Trench onstage on alternate nights, mixing the score live. Though we’re treated to a clear view of their operations at a sound desk promisingly piled with CD players and improvised sounding boards, the musical elements are exasperatingly underused. Instead, the story is accompanied by a fuzzy ambient soundscape which rarely pushes itself into the foreground.
Anna Driftmier’s gorgeous set features an inbuilt vanishing point and a somehow threatening confluence of lines vaguely suggestive of something insectile and predatory. Eye-like portholes glow ominously while a spread of wooden beams seems ready to reach out and grab.
Accompanying the performance, the full text is presented in the programme, and indeed works better as a short story in prose than as a script. Trench rattles it off with real commitment, even if his Walker starts off with starchy, overly stiff delivery before developing a convincing speech impediment. He does run a very nice line of comic asides, though, leading to some of the play’s best moments. As an eternity passes and the world around the ship decays, leaving it floating through the Milky Way, he spots an open flame and quips ‘well that’s a health and safety hazard.’
Director Tom Crowley plays up the wistful quality, letting the mood and music swell and recede like a changing tide. It all feels a little like you’ve fallen asleep to a bedtime story and taken up the tale in a dream. The thing with dreams though is that they’re not beholden to an audience, and while they might sometimes seem profound, they’re actually just a collage of randomly sparking memories. Though the production showcases a strong company with real talent, the lack of solid anchor points leaves the play, like any ship, adrift.
Radioman is on until 30th April 2016. Click here for tickets.