“a performance that convincingly and loyally wrings the emotion from the text”
“Maybe you wanna see an effect? A piece of magic?” Charlie Fairbanks (Adam Gillen) asks us, explaining that magicians prefer to use the term ‘effect’ rather than ‘trick’. What they create are illusions by taking advantage of how we perceive and process information. A dove fluttering from a hat is used to draw an audience’s attention away from the actual trick. Just as some believe the moon landing was a trick (fake news half a century before the phrase was coined) by the American Government to distract us from Vietnam and the Cold War. It is this merging of the global and the personal that informs Al Smith’s writing in “Radio” that enables us to connect instantly to the play.
Smith’s father worked for the US space programme and helped to choose the landing sites on the surface of the moon for Apollo 11. He grew up hearing his stories about that time, and about the highs and lows of that era in the States. By extension, “Radio” is about fathers and sons, pride and protest, love and war; a kind of love-letter to his own father and to a lost era. Alone on the stage, Adam Gillen treats the writing with reverence in a performance that convincingly and loyally wrings the emotion from the text. It is no small challenge to keep an audience clinging to your words (and there’s a fair few of them) for eighty minutes. And Gillen does it with style, honesty and subtlety. Director Josh Roche avoids gimmickry and allows the actor’s storytelling to take centre stage.
Charlie Fairbanks was born at noon, in June of 1950 in Kansas, in the dead centre of the 20th century and in the dead centre of the United States. The trouble is that the centre has a habit of shifting. As does the focus of the story. But that is not a criticism; Gillen’s anecdotal flair adds spontaneity so that the flow of the narrative never ebbs as it meanders and side streams. The strands of his story overlap, like fragments of clarity from a continually spinning radio dial, in a performance that crackles with understated energy.
While chasing his own dreams of becoming an astronaut, Charlie navigates the American Dream and the twists and turns of his changing world – from JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the cold war and, central to the play, the space race. His is a heartwarming story of reaching for the moon, and of the effects of seeing our world from afar. The real achievement of the moon landing, says Charlie at the close of the monologue, wasn’t that we got there but that, in getting there, we realised the value of all we left behind.
And like the cycle of the moon, we are back at the start – with an echo of Charlie’s opening question. But by now we have the answer. It doesn’t take an illusionist’s trickery to know that we have just seen a piece of magic.
“Gregory remains an incredibly watchable and powerful figure on stage”
Just under a year since its mesmerising turn at the King’s Head Theatre, ‘Riot Act’ is on the move. The Arcola Theatre plays host this time for three performances that commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the show will soon embark on a UK tour. I reviewed the show last year, and found it powerful, deeply moving and politically rousing. None of that has changed, and the show, along with writer and star Alexis Gregory, have only got better.
This is verbatim theatre utilising personal stories in the best way. Created from hours of interviews, we meet three gay men from three different generations: Michael, one of the last remaining witnesses to the Stonewall Riots; Lavinia, Hackney drag queen of the 70s; and Paul, Act Up activist and successful writer in his own right. These three stories come together to present a powerful collective experience. Struggles with identity and finding community. The freedom of gay liberation post-Stonewall. The unimaginable pain and suffering of the AIDS crisis. These oral histories give us tales beyond the mainstream. They ask us: what does it mean to be gay? What do we know about gay history? Do we take things for granted that in reality aren’t?
Paul’s message about “constant vigilance” seems even more potent in light of recent events. The cancelling of a performance of ‘Rotterdam’ in Southampton after stars Lucy Jane Parkinson and Rebecca Banatvala were pelted with stones. The headline grabbing attack on a London bus of Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris. This show reminds us these aren’t random, but the continuation of a culture of intolerance we all know well. The question is: what can you do to change things?
Gregory remains an incredibly watchable and powerful figure on stage. He morphs effortlessly into the three characters using voice and stance to expertly delineate between them all. His speech rhythms also change – it’s real dedication to character on display here. Rikki Beadle-Blair directs, and the pair play around with lighting to create drama. Beadle-Blair allows Gregory to enjoy the comedic moments – and this audience was loving it. Laughter of surprise and recognition mixes in this vibrant and diverse audience. The show invites conversation. Speak to the person next to you! Ask them questions! Remember your shared history!
In all, ‘Riot Act’ remains one of the best queer shows I’ve seen in London. I’m so glad the rest of the UK will get chance to hear these stories and respond to them. How much are the metropolitan experiences of the men in the show shared by people from across the UK? What parallels will emerge? And what of the future of ‘Riot Act’? Gregory mentioned a ‘women’s riot act’ – so the future looks bright. Beautiful, engaging and moving, I recommend this show to everyone.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Dawson James
Arcola Theatre until 30th June then UK tour continues