When all around is strife and uncertainty, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned plate of… farce. Thirty-seven years after its debut performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, Michael Frayn’s play of backstage antics bleeding into on stage catastrophe is as thigh-slappingly funny as ever.
For West End audiences used to the meta-theatricality of Mischief Theatre’s ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ will find themselves on familiar territory here – Mischief’s hugely successful show it essentially a full-length take on Frayn’s final act. What this production allows however is a look behind the scenes, seeing the love triangles, squabbles and gossip that take places in corners the audience normally cannot see. Act One introduces the array of wonderfully exuberant characters in rehearsal, Act Two takes us literally behind the scenes to show how love breaks this particularly touring company apart, and Act Three takes us further along the tour when the actor’s exasperation causes absolute chaos onstage.
The joy is seeing all the jokes set up in Act One come to fruition in Act Three. Jeremy Herrin’s production keeps the energy high and the pace quick. His ensemble leap to the challenge. Sarah Hadland is gossipy dame using balletic posture and glued on grins to see the show through. Richard Henders plays an excellent Frederick Fellowes, epitomising the actor seeking meaning for every move he makes. Simon Rouse plays a drunken octogenarian with aplomb and Lloyd Owen is a suitably sarcastic and exasperated director. Meera Syal, as Dotty Otley, lives up to her name, unable to remember when to bring sardines on and when to bring them off.
Max Jones’ set is nicely modern, and the costumes fit into the present day well. This is pastiche of a genre that will always please. The audience tonight was guffawing in the stalls. My only reservation is in the casting – it could have been a little more inventive. That aside, this is a gloriously silly evening of comedy that will leave anyone with sore cheeks and good spirits. Fans of Mischief Theatre would be advised to check this out, along with anyone else interested in the theatricality of theatre and what madcap relationships go on behind the scenes. It might leave you wondering why anyone would get involved in the game of theatre. But it’s the precariousness of live theatre itself that will always be the most entertaining thing on stage.
“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.