NB: This review will attempt to remain as spoiler-free as possible, though there may be a couple of snippets.
I came to Welcome to Night Vale a little over a year ago. This was late for someone who keeps an eye on fandom, mostly because I didn’t think it would be my kind of thing. I find I can’t listen to fiction podcasts, much as I try (a shame, as I really liked audiobooks as a kid), and I’ve also never really been much of one for Lovecraftian style horror, so I thought I’d give it a pass.
As it happened, around that time, I was hard up for podcasts to listen to in the gym. I’d given up on Radiolab, the last straw being their appalling treatment of the Hmong community ((What do I mean? Interviewee and translator Kao Kalia Yang tells her and her uncle’s story here.)) (though I’d previously found their story on Henrietta Lacks to be cringeworthy, and that among other things). That had been my go-to for drowning out the terrible music or television options in the gym I go to, and nothing else was quite right. So I gave WTNV a try.
It takes some getting into–I would say one needs to give it five or six episodes at least, if not ten–and to be fair, I don’t think I could just sit and listen to it all, which has been the barrier for several people I know. But for me, WTNV is a perfect storm, engaged storytelling in a radio style format while being both funny and poignant, diverse in a lily-white genre, and relatively limited on fail–or at the very least, a general commitment to doing better than the usual crap one gets in spec fic media.
I’m hooked on this little town, Lake Wobegon meets Derry meets Gravity Falls. It fills the Prairie Home Companion niche for this generation, who watch the fall of world they cannot control, struggle not to fully succumb to corporate interests and marketing, keep tongue firmly in cheek while making dark in-jokes, and fail miserably when it comes to being entirely jaded about life.
I love that. I love Night Vale, I love hearing about everyone in it, not just Cecil and Carlos. I love that it’s touching and sweet in places, that there is always deeper meaning; that it’s our world, to borrow a turn of phrase, as seen through a glass (or perhaps an old oak doorframe), darkly. And I love that it actually makes me laugh aloud in public places wearing headphones, causing other gym patrons to give me looks of concern.
So, long introduction over? It wasn’t really much of a choice when I found out the Night Vale crew were bringing their live show over, not only to Europe, but to Glasgow. ((One learns to do grabby hands with this kind of thing, both when living in a flyover city in the US and off the beaten track…uh, really anywhere outside London…in the UK.)) The live shows had been doing ridiculously well in the US, and one never does know if this option will come up again. Therefore I plunked down my £18.50 moments after the sale opened, then promptly remembered/forgot/remembered again over the past couple of months that I was actually going, before having a moment of anxiety about going to a gig mid-week, and getting past that and dragging myself to the West End on a weeknight.
In retrospect, I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I was not in the slightest way disappointed.
Oran Mor is a deconsecrated church turned venue/restaurant/bar, and I knew it’d be atmospheric. I’d been past it plenty of times in my old days in Hillhead. But the interiors are something else, particularly in the Auditorium where the gig was held–the bare bones of a church, with walls and steeple covered in paintings and slogans and busts of thinkers, stylistic modernist outsider art with a spiritual twist meeting 60s-style countercultural murals. Musical guest Mary Epworth noted it was the ‘most Night Vale venue’ they’d performed in yet, and that really does sum it up. If you’re in Glasgow, it’s worth a nosy.
The crowd was receptive and 100% behind the performers, though not quite as rowdy as I’ve heard ones in the US have been, which suits me, particularly as I was on my own. Though I hadn’t been in queue since 4:30, I didn’t have any trouble getting a good seat due to being a single ticket. Huge relief that, as I get very frustrated in theatres and cinemas when I have a rubbish view. ((When possible, I must sit in the near-exact centre of a movie theater. It’s A Thing.))
Mary Epworth was a delightful musical guest–though I wasn’t certain the audience was with her initially, people soon picked up and cheered her on. Epworth is a stylistic heir to the British electric folk and progressive folk genres, and I can appreciate that taking a song or two to get used to (one never knows what the weather will be in Night Vale). If I had to pick a word to describe her work, it’d be ‘liminal’, somewhere between the real world and the supernatural, at once both grounded and ethereal. This made her a perfect match for the show, in retrospect, and one of the unobtrusive ways that the performance was tailored to fit local audiences. ((MINOR SPOILER: Though to be honest, I see Tamika Flynn and her reader posse as being as keen on the poetry of Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead as they are on Carol Ann Duffy’s, my friends.))
By now the WTNV crew have long since ironed out any growing pains in doing live shows, and while I admit to being a bit sceptical at hearing about the first ones, I shouldn’t have been (more on this in a bit), and I certainly enjoyed the hell out of this one. As when listening to the podcast, time flew by and the performance was laugh-out-loud funny as well as just insightful and poignant enough to get to the heart; but in this case, the visual dimension really did add to the narrative.
Nowhere else was this more obvious than that all of the performers walked the thin line between remaining perfectly in character and completely smashing the fourth wall, even when it came to audience participation elements. The narrative, in fact, demanded this same liminality ((Yes, that word again, shut up, I like it.)), and it was a good reminder of just how talented the cast and creators of WTNV are, particularly fandom’s beloved Cecil Baldwin. I’ll admit here that he really is a joy to watch, and if you have the opportunity to see him in anything, do so.
What’s also testament to the talent of Fink, Cranor, et al, isn’t just that they pulled together an engaging, cohesive story that fits into the current plotline of the podcast ((That is, ‘bonus material’ of the sort we’re apparently due to get for the month of November, as they recover from non-stop trekking over most of Western and Central Europe over three weeks’ time. Can’t really blame ’em.)) without being plot-critical. It’s that ‘The Librarian’ is so engaging and so cohesive while incorporating so many call-backs to beloved elements throughout the series.
After all, any live performance generates certain expectations in the fan who turns up; they need some surprises but aren’t going to be satisfied with everything being new, and you better play the goddamn greatest hits while you’re at it. Avoiding spoilers, this show hit every single necessary note, as well as an unexpected one or two (a return from waaaaay back in the day). But above all, it’s proof of the solid writing and the belief and charisma of the talent that this came off without being clunky and overly obvious. When you add in the fact that this is a skeleton cast and crew working frantically under the burdens of international performance (travel and visas and show after show after show), the level of artistry here was pretty much stunning.
If you’re a WTNV fan ((If you’re not, consider becoming one.)) –regardless of whether or not you’re just a faithful listener, a massive shipper, or the biggest analytical fangeek on the Tumblr dash–and you have the resources and ability, get thee hence to a live show. It enhances the immersive part of the fannish experience rather than revealing any backstage secrets, but I, for one, am more than okay with that. Night Vale needs to retain its mythos to fully function; it remains, even in live performance, snippets from another world just around the corner which tells us so very much about our own.