Radioman, Old Red Lion Theatre, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

In writer-performer Felix Trench’s new work Radioman, a man out for a walk alongside a country canal finds a decrepit narrowboat, the Gadfly, out of which can be heard the strains of German jazz. Further exploration reveals an interior dedicated to music – vinyl, CDs, minidiscs and iPods litter the space. And among them all is the mysterious Radioman, a dishevelled man whose hands are almost permanently attached to the faders on his mixing desk.

And so begins an hour of bewitching storytelling. Trench is an amiable companion, telling his story with turns of phrase that suggest at a view of the world that is already slightly askew, before his discovery leads him into a world that is increasingly surreal.

To call this piece a solo work would deny the impact Trench’s collaborators, drawn together under director Tom Crowley’s eye, have upon this fabulist tale. Anna Driftmier’s set initially seems to merely used forced perspective to suggest a narrowboat interior, but as the story progresses it also implies a vehicle in the process of warping outwards, the wooden panels along its walls splaying outwards. Marine Le Houëzec’s lighting design complements this well, with ship’s lanterns extending behind and around the audience to further draw us in to the world Trench paints with his well-crafted prose.

As you might expect for a play about a radio man, sound and music play an important role. Musician Odinn Orn Hilmarsson (whose role will, in some performances, be taken by fellow composer David Knight) performs a curiously fascinating mix of analogue and digital sounds and tracks in accompaniment, snippets of recorded music mixing with percussive beats and echoing strings, distorted and looped to produce a mysterious soundscape that becomes its own onstage personality.

As Trench’s tale unfolds and events take an increasingly trippy turn, one is always wondering where it will lead. Is it a tale of a personal time loop, much as Hilmarsson’s playback of sounds repeats, echoes and distorts? A fable, perhaps, whose moral will become clear? A psychedelic fantasy by a man who should not have eaten those canalside mushrooms?

There is no easy answer to that, for the full framing of Trench’s story remains a mystery even as the lights come down after an all-too-brief hour. But it stays with you afterwards, creatively sparking for much longer than its single onstage act alone. And unusually for a fringe production, the playtext is available in full within the programme – an essential purchase, for not only does Radioman form a superlative piece of theatre, it also works as a prose short story designed to reveal more upon subsequent reading.

Radioman continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until April 30. For more details and booking, visit www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk

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