Reviewed – 24th June 2019
“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.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Helen Maybanks
Arcola Theatre until 13th July
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Old Red Lion Theatre
Reviewed – 6th April 2018
“like a heartbeat that lived throughout and breathed life into the entire performance”
Plastic opens with an energetic promise of what today could be: “a Reebok classic of a day”, and then the audience are propelled into a nostalgic yet familiar sense of the promise and possibility of what it means to be young. You could be a legend. Or you could be a loser. What you once were and what you will be. But in which order?
First we meet Kev (Mark Weinman) who animatedly chronicles in delicious detail the legacy he left at school as “a football legend”. The type of lad boys wanted to be mates with and all the girls fancied. Weinman presents a character who is instantly likeable, and as the story progresses the audience get an increasing sense that life may not have delivered on all its promises set up in the school playground. Until he meets Lisa (skilfully played by Madison Clare), a gutsy sixteen year old schoolgirl who seems to represent all Kev had and still wants to be. Weinman and Clare perfectly encapsulate the all encompassing nervy experience of carefully navigating your first relationship, and how it can be public property for whispering gossip and ridicule in the school halls.
Alongside this evolving relationship between Kev and Lisa, there is another between two loyal school friends Jack (Louis Greatorex) and Ben (Thomas Coombes). Jack and Ben are in the same year as Lisa but bumped down a few pegs lower on the school’s hierarchy. Their friendship is one of both survival and of genuine admiration for each other. They help each other dodge the bullies and cling onto their childhood friendship with Lisa as their bridge between them and their more popular peers.
Ben is being bullied and every day is a balancing act of avoiding attacks and trying to show that they aren’t getting to him. Thomas Coombes delivers a speech detailing the painful goings on during a science lesson that has every audience member holding their breath in solidarity.
The cast give a real lesson in what it means to perform as an ensemble, with every transition between moments being seamless. The direction from Josh Roche was clear; he carefully drove the story at quite a pace, whilst simultaneously giving the more tender moments the breathing space they required, which meant that in turn that audience were absolutely present and engaged throughout.
The play itself, written by Kenneth Emson, was like nothing I had ever seen before. The text was poem-like with rhyming couplets in parts and was hugely evocative and visual; It had its own rhythm, like a heartbeat that lived throughout and breathed life into the entire performance.
The relationships forged onstage were absolutely believable, provoking raucous laughter from the audience in parts and in other more tender and grisly moments the silence was loaded. There wasn’t a moment that didn’t belong to the characters onstage. The emotional truth in all characters was both staggering and mesmerising, with a particular nod to Madison Clare whose performance as Lisa left the audience reeling in wonder.
Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com
Photography by Mathew Foster
Old Red Lion Theatre until 21st April