Review: Radio, Arcola Theatre

Al Smith’s one-man-show Radio follows the story of Charles Lebanon Fairfax Junior (Adam Gillen), born in June 1950 in the small town of Lebanon, Kansas. It’s the dead centre of the twentieth century, and, as the family discover a few years later, the dead centre of the U.S. Except, with the addition of new states, the centre keeps moving – and so does the Fairfax family. 

Charlie’s story is a rich one. He’s the son of a farmer-turned-flagmaker, and has big, all-consuming dreams of becoming an astronaut – of breaking free of planet Earth. The play charts the progression of Charlie’s life against the rise and fall of the US manned space flight programme. When barely even an adult, he heads off to fight in the Vietnam war, stating that that’s how a man eventually gets to shoot off into space. But when he returns, that’s not the case. He’s down-and-out, he can’t get a stable job; he barely even has a home. Charlie’s dreams are shattered.

Al Smith spins a really, really good yarn. His writing is nuanced and recounts this story with great intricacy, and yet with complete simplicity. One-person shows provide a great opportunity to get back to the roots of storytelling, and Smith’s piece does just that. The audience is in safe hands with Gillen, who brings the words to vivid life and is, in short, a bloody good actor.  He embodies a wide range of characters with skilful changes in physicality and voice. Very occasionally these become blurred, but mostly it is instantly clear who is speaking to us. He portrays Charlie’s mother and father with particular delicateness and detail.

The world of the play is constructed as vividly as if there were ten actors on stage. Gillen has a commendable command over the piece, which is helped by intelligent direction by Josh Roche and Kaleya Baxe. When he moves in the space or physically portrays a moment, it’s with intention. The set is a simple and lovely design by Sophie Thomas. Threads and threads of coloured yarn are strung at a diagonal between poles, and are used to show elements of the story from the fiery trajectory of a space rocket to a towering pile of back-yard garbage. Lighting by Peter Small changes subtly from moment to moment to highlight fear, joy, excitement, intimacy. Sound by Ella Wahlstrom is woven easily into the life of the piece, always to accentuate and never to distract. 

Radio does feel slightly longer than it needs to be. Despite how engaging the character of Charles is, I am aware of my attention wavering slightly in the latter parts of the play. It is drawn back in, though, to a particularly delightful scene in which Charlie’s mother ends up performing a magic trick – or rather, ‘effect’ – to President Ford himself at a dinner event. This scene is charming, touching, and perfectly executed.

Radio is a unique and deliciously specific reflection on one man’s trajectory through life. Despite the audience being asked to entrust their experience into the hands of just one performer, it’s clear that this piece is a result of a well-functioning, passionate team.

Radio is playing the Arcola Theatre until 13 July. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.