Review: Hall, Hornsey Town Hall
Published on Culture Wars, 24.11.2009
Looming over you, Hornsey Town Hall pierces a dark and gloomy dusk sky. For the most part its windows are unlit. From one, a spectacled figure peers down on you, perhaps monitoring your presence, perhaps innocently questioning it. At the main entrance thick-set iron gates lurch half-open, not so much inviting as coercive: the gravitational pull of curiosity overpowering trepidation. Inside your head, a voice – female, calm, headstrong – urges you and your mp3 player forward.
Right from the start, from this initial encounter with the building itself, Hall is soaked in atmosphere. Its cocktail of classical gothic imagery and urban menace sets you on edge and keeps you there. Inside the forsaken municipal shell, dead leaves litter the floors and elongated shadows creep up the walls. Decay and damp have usurped purpose and people. Those that remain, stalking its corridors still, seem civic waifs serving a long gone public. As they pass silently by, you tingle – as much with the excitement of the unseen voyeur as with the chill of goosebumps.
However, simple spookiness is not sustenance enough. Nor does it require much skill. Couch a long-disused, musty building in darkness, send an audience to navigate it alone and the site does the work itself. What matters is how you populate that space: the images concocted, the stories unearthed and the journeys charted.
Sadly, in this respect Hall cannot wholly match the promise of its location. It feels half-baked – not dim-witted, but under-interrogated. Certainly, you can’t accuse 19:29 of lacking ambition – for a company of recent graduates to attempt something on this scale is impressive – but the further into the hour you get the more it looks like foolhardiness. Though there are some vivid images along the way – a banquet festering under layers of mould, a lone pianist in a grand hall – Hall is let down by a dramaturgy as unkempt as the building itself.
Prime among the resultant potholes is that nothing really comes to fruition. Characters encountered seem to have no bearing on one another and often never recur en route. The young, bucolic lovers and the malevolent architect belong to totally distinct worlds without any confirmation of deliberately parallel existences. Then there is the problem of promises left unfulfilled. The prologue (a separate mp3 to be listened to en route to Crouch End) advises buying biscuits, but no opportunity to use them arises. We are asked, at one point, to don black rubber gloves, only for them to be handed back moments later without use. The only discernible thread running through the piece is the rumour of a secret room unmentioned in architectural plans and yet, there is no point of its discovery. Or, at least, if there is it goes unannounced.
Our own presence in the space is treated with similar inconsistency. At times, we are activated – instructed to interact in meetings, dance or play trick on lovers – at others, we are observed but let alone and elsewhere still we seem to acquire invisibility.
Often, it feels as if we are being asked to overlook, to be forgiving. The size of the site and the logistics entailed – getting the timings right and maintaining the conveyor belt of audience members – have clearly derailed the attention to detail and we are politely requested to turn a blind eye. The audio-guide orders your gaze one way in order that the mechanics of the piece can slip by unnoticed behind you. Only, of course, they don’t.
Nonetheless Hall remains an enjoyable experience, but this is less the result of 19:29’s efforts than the nature of Hornsey Town Hall itself. The pleasure of the content comes largely from its puzzling disparities, which beg questions and demand interpretation. However, the beauty of its mysteries exists only insofar as you are prepared to accept their obscurity as intentional. The deeper into the building one goes, the more the suspicion grows that no linkage actually exists, that the company have thrown together a series of images without shared foundations. When that happens, even the building itself loses its atmospheric power. Approach gently.