Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Longwave, Old Fire Station, Oxford

Review: Longwave, Old Fire Station, Oxford

With the backing of touring producers house, Chris Goode has brought his 2006 silent play Longwave out of cold storage. I remember the publicity image from that year’s Fringe – two men in yellow protective gear beneath a bright blue sky – but hadn’t seen it until now. Turns out it’s a treat: cuter – so much cuter – than Goode’s recent work, but with strong thematic connections running beneath.

Longwave introduces itself as a radio play – but, intriguingly, it’s actually a silent play with nods to Laurel and Hardy. Two research scientists return to their base in protective clothing. Presumably, their surroundings are toxic in some way. It’s clear they’re isolated, almost entirely cut off from all human life, and have been for some time. The radio – the play’s third character, arguably its protagonist – is their only point of contact with the rest of the world. Even in hermitage, the world intrudes; it affects these two men and the mood between them. Someone else is picking the tunes. (Just as, in Men in the Cities, someone else is picking the news.)

If Longwave starts with a screwball double act routine – the pair waltz through a string of goofy experiments on some sort of radioactive haggis, patting it, pricking it, parachuting it and subjecting it to psychoanalysis – its momentum eventually comes from its runaway melancholy.

The two scientists, with their matching Victorian beards and woollen long-johns, have been tethered together, whether under orders or by choice we’re not quite sure. Their lives are a mixture of boredom, longing and irritation. Jamie Wood races tape measures and stares at the wobbly poster paint pictures sent in from home. Tom Lyall plays his harmonica, mournfully and much to Wood’s irritation, and surrounds himself with scratchy sketches of songbirds.

They never speak. Communication is instinctive, through looks and glances, whistles and well-established routine. Though very occasionally contrived, you mostly stop noticing the silence – only for it suddenly to pop back into focus. Whenever it does, it begs a big question: Is there no need to talk or just nothing to say?

The two men are like magnets. Sometimes they click together, slotting precisely into a rehearsed routine whereby each is exactly where the other expects, ready to receive and continue some process. Elsewhere they push apart. Confined to this shack, surrounded by knick-knacks and both living (if you can call it that) and working in a single space, it’s no surprise that they infuriate one another. Not in an overblown, smoke-out-of-earholes way, mind. They tread on one another’s toes and impinge – inevitably – on each other’s personal lives. The one’s harmonica clashes with the other’s radio. Resentments bristle. Dinner, served in unmarked tin cans, is dished up by luck. One gets peaches, the other scrap metal. Every time. No matter what superstitious rituals Lyall attempts – swapping seats, swapping cans – he always gets the raw deal, just as Tom Stoppard’s Guildenstern keeps flipping heads.

There are so many moments of eloquent, aching sadness within. Hearing a dedication from home – “I miss you Daddy and I’m beginning to forget what you look like” – Wood goes to leave, packing a suitcase. As he does so, Lyall starts fitting and, with all the calmness of a routine occurrence, Wood swipes a pillow off the bed and places it beneath his head, waits a while, then shifts him gently into the recovery position. These two need each other, and yet even in that shared isolation, neither can fully be themselves. With Wood on a solo mission, Lyall slowly pulls out and pulls on a full-length dress, and breathes, and smiles. When Wood returns, he climbs out of his protective gear. The other side of the curtain, Lyall climbs back into his: not yellow rubber, but his ordinary clothes.

They are alone together. A snippet from Desert Island Discs – presumably found – clarifies the whole show. The interviewee, a scientist, describes his default setting: “One never feels at home anywhere,” he says, “because one is always on the precipice, on the edge of the unknown.” I once met a mathematician – Goode was there too, come to think of it, as part of This Is Tomorrow – who spoke about only being able to speak to five other people worldwide about his specialist subject. These two are in the same place: alone together; at odds with the world.

Longwave toys with that, and it ends with the most exquisite ambiguity. Lyall packs up his belongings, placing his tape recorder, his dress and the clockhands (memories, self, time?) into a suitcase, chalks a message to his colleague – ‘It’s just as I feared. M’ – and steps out into the world, wearing only goggles for protection. It looks like a suicide.

What if it’s not? What if the world isn’t as toxic as we’d presumed? After all, Lyall opens the window occasionally and they live in a wooden shack. There’s no air lock, no full-scale detox on re-entry. What if they protect themselves from the world unnecessary? Mightn’t Lyall’s exit actually be an escape, a step out into the world, rather than a leap off of it?

After a while on his own – alone alone and turning himself inside out – Wood turns on his radio and hears his colleague. He’s broadcasting from elsewhere, from some unknown paradise. He made it. Where? Some heaven or some reality? Who knows? Wood pulls on his goggles and follows him out. Into the unknown. Into the world. Or out of it.

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