Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 25 June 2019

Review: Radio at Arcola Theatre

19 June - 13 July

‘A surprising elegy’ to America: Ava Davies broadcasts her response to Al Smith’s monologue in the form of voice notes.

Ava Wong Davies
Radio at Arcola Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Radio at Arcola Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

14:59 – 25/06/19 – 51 seconds

[clanking] Okay – um – I’m just trying to find my notebook – which I took notes in – and here’s the playtext. Great. I don’t really know if this is gonna work? I don’t really – well there’s a bit in the show where he – Charlie Fairbanks Jr. – he says that he like, would speak into the radio when he was in Vietnam – to feel less alone. So I guess this kinda works as a review form? I dunno. I guess it’s kinda a rip off of Maddy Costa’s Anna review but – whatever!! All art is derivative!!

15:04 – 1 minute 25 seconds

So – I feel like – we all know this kind of play. Like it’s a monologue, and it’s a guy and he’s telling a story about his family, and his journey, and how he grew up, and love and loss – and – and – to be honest I think like I was expecting it to be – a certain way. Because I feel like that type of play is so ingrained in British theatre – British fringe theatre. And I was really – ugh I don’t know if this sounds patronising – and I don’t want it to sound patronising because like, everyone involved in this show is older than me. Anyway. I was really – pleasantly surprised by it and I genuinely came out of it and felt very – really like – tender – and warmed by it. But not in a cheesy way.

15:10 – 2 minutes 48 seconds

It’s basically – the whole premise is that – it’s about a guy born in the very centre of the twentieth century, born in the very centre of the USA – there’s this amazing section about how he and his family move away from Kansas, but then as states are added they just end up – wherever they go – still being in the centre. And it’s such a gorgeous bit of writing, like Al Smith – he’s such a beautiful writer like, really assured and precise but also expansive and big in scope – but then like also really intimate? Like what? How?! And this was written in 2005, for Kandinsky I think [checks text] 2006! Wow. It still feels really fresh, like it was written yesterday. But anyway it’s about this man and he’s like – kinda stuck in the centre – there’s this weird tension between being stuck and moving constantly – like stasis and shift – like you can feel the pull of time really acutely. Because he wants to be an astronaut. [laughs] sorry, I forgot to – I never say what the story’s about – yeah, that’s the main conceit. He wants to be an astronaut and never does become one. But – but like at the same time that’s not what it is at all. You see the poster and it’s Adam Gillen with the massive space helmet on and you think “Okay I kinda know where I am with this,” and it sorta just slightly sidesteps what you think it’s gonna be – in a really generous, human way. It’s sorta – Charlie is always adjacent, he’s never the main character, not even in his own life. He’s always telling us about his mother and father. Um. Yeah but it’s the generosity. Al Smith has a real warm touch about the human spirit, I think.

[An extended pause, wherein the reviewer goes to make a cup of tea and ends up making some pasta]

15:35 – 5 minutes 44 seconds

Hello sorry I am back [clears throat] um – okay I have to talk about Adam Gillen because he is just – extraordinary. He’s amazing he is – [gasps] like he is just – like kinda just – I can’t even – one of those actors where I get such an immense thrill out of being like “How did he do that?” He does this thing where – again, it sidesteps. The play’s a monologue – Gillen was playing his mother and father and girlfriend and stuff – and I feel like that form is so normalised for me, I’m so used to it. But I was so surprised by this – and not because it was anything particularly radical but just because there was a lightness of touch – and props to Josh Roche for the direction. It was the way Gillen – he does this amazing thing when he would do Charlie’s father’s grouchy voice, and the audience would laugh, and then he would slightly break out of the father’s character and he would kinda look at the audience, and kinda smile a little, and maybe laugh. It was like – it felt like a monologue that was actually connected and responsive to the audience. But Charlie isn’t a big performer, either, and the way Adam Gillen plays him is super slouchy and uncomfortable, and occasionally he’ll come alive, but then he’ll be like “oh no” and then kinda burrow back into himself. And he’s incredibly funny, it’s a really funny script, but he’s edging around this constant sadness. I wrote – really early on – “you can feel him circling around some enormous pain” – but the thing is that there is no massive moment of trauma that occurs. It’s a really still piece of theatre. Nothing really happens, that’s kinda the point. It’s just life. Life just wears him down. America just wears him down. Slowly. That’s the pain. Like, we don’t really hear about Charlie being in Vietnam – not really – or the moon landing. Which is weird, it’s like it just passed him by. Like you look up and life has just passed you by. Which is the whole point, obviously.

15:56 – 1 minute 12 seconds

The set is really beautiful too – by Sophie Thomas – it’s like a deconstructed American flag – like these red, white, and blue strings all kinda tied together and swooping down. Like – it’s stationary – but there’s also a sense of propulsion to it. The swoop of it. It’s beautiful. Probably could’ve been utilised more – there’s one really nice moment when they use it to illustrate a rocket going up to space but the rest of the time it did kinda seem like Adam Gillen was just kinda like – ducking around it. I wrote in my notebook though – “play about storytelling – string for set design – spinning a yarn??? Ha ha.” I was proud of that.

16:01 – 2 minutes 19 seconds

I think you can take what you want from the play – I think I personally took less of the stuff about the US to heart – like it was very obviously a play about the US and fictions and realities and that’s all great – but that personally didn’t resonate that deeply for me. It’s not an issue piece in any way – it felt like – like just a quiet meditation on those ideas. An elegy. That’s it. An elegy. Yeah. A surprising elegy. Does that exist? I keep thinking about the climax – if you can even call it that – it’s a meandering play – in a nice way – but the climax is this amazing story about Charlie’s mother doing a magic trick and it was…kind of astonishing. Because it was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve seen in the theatre this year. Which I didn’t expect, at all. But I kinda like that. That one of the best set pieces I’ve seen onstage this year was just like – when it came down to it – a man onstage – just talking to an audience. Yeah. Amazing.

Radio is on at Arcola Theatre till 13th July. More info here

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Ava Wong Davies is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Radio at Arcola Theatre Show Info


Produced by Audible

Directed by Josh Roche

Written by Al Smith

Cast includes Adam Gillen

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