Radio by Al Smith at the Arcola Theatre | Review
“Dreams aren’t weightless things, they have a mass,” Charles L Fairbanks Junior tells us, as he fantasises about becoming an astronaut despite growing up in Nowheresville. First performed in 2006, Al Smith’s Radio uses the moon landing as its centre of gravity, but it isn’t just the fiftieth anniversary of this triumph of American engineering that makes it worth a revival.
“Pride and protest – they’re lucrative things,” we hear from Fairbanks Jnr. “The worse it got, the better it got.” Fairbanks Senior found that Vietnam was as much of a boon for his flag-making business as spaceflight: this is a play about who America is, how it sees itself and how closely those two things are related.
In staging this one-hander, Director Josh Roche and Designer Sophie Thomas make the right decision to strip the production back. We are greeted by a few scattered objects in the field of play – a chair; a tape recorder; a toolbox. The largest obstructions are scaffolding, dropped haphazardly in place, strung together with red, white and blue cords. It will be Adam Gillen’s movement through this ambiguous space, and his interactions with it, that will create the magic.
Gillen lollops onto the stage wearing an ill-fitting jacket and sagging jeans. The effect works well: I imagine we are about to be forced to endure a rambling monologue by a down-and-out bore. And in less steady hands that might be what we got.
“Every story gets a little bent along the way.” The subtle text is a story about storytelling. As we follow Fairbanks Jnr from Lebanon, Kansas to Rugby, North Dakota to San Francisco, California something astonishing happens: we see the naive little boy Fairbanks grow up into a soldier in front of our eyes. Gillen dazzles one moment with a flourish, then sizzles with quiet contempt, embodying the fierce Mrs Fairbanks for a line or two.
On occasion, perhaps, this journey is a little too perfectly constructed, the effect too ‘neat’. But we live in a time when ‘curating our own lives’ is not only encouraged but mandatory for success in all but the most private of endeavours. America looks back to a seminal achievement fifty years on, and questions how it could have happened in the same era as Vietnam and the Kennedy assassination. Similarly, we are invited to wonder how, at this contemporary political nadir, the country has in many respects never been more successful.
I’m also interested in the role of Audible, the Amazon audiobook platform, in staging this play. This is their third UK production and will be available for download from early July. They’ve chosen to put on a production about myth-making, and it would be fair to assume the next month will be an almost universally positive eulogisation of the Apollo missions. This production aims to cut across that self-congratulatory cheerleading. It is a choice that may be controversial, but certainly places them at the centre of this debate.
Ultimately, Radio managed to capture my attention for its eighty minutes, transporting me across continents as Fairbanks yearns to escape the planet. If dreams have mass, while Charlie tries to launch his own into space we are there with him, seeing if he can break free of the bounds of gravity.
Review by Ben Ross
Charlie Fairbanks (Adam Gillen) was born in the dead centre of the United States at the dead centre of the twentieth century. Americans are going to the Moon and Charlie’s sure he’ll be the first one there. But as he shines his spotlight on the Moon, so too does it illuminate the darker side to his nation’s history.
The production sees Audible, the world’s leading producer and provider of spoken-word entertainment deepens its commitment to UK theatre.
By Al Smith
Directed by Josh Roche
At Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL
19 June – 13 July 2019