Chris Buxey’s radio play charts the story of author Stuart (John Rayment), whose young adult series of books, Frankie Fightwell, with a strong, eponymous heroine, are running out of steam. His future is in jeopardy and his daughter is in trouble. Not only that, but Frankie herself is starting to question his methods, and while he knows it’s all in his head, it still feels very real. Meanwhile he is trying to navigate Frankie through the newest title, which is in progress and features some Nazi man-spiders.
To start with the obvious, and in a very practical sense, this is a different experience to your average theatre trip. The acting is purely done with voice and as a radio play, it is significantly shorter than your average piece. There are pros and cons to both. The narrative is compact and with time limited, fast developments engender humour, but it does of course mean you’re not able to really explore relationships and certain situations and motivations. Similarly, while it allows you to focus on the words, you lose dynamism as there is no real movement.
The main actors bring warmth, good intonation and deft timing, and it is easy to believe in the characters, though there are lulls in energy and tempo. Rayment’s intonation really brought to the fore Stuart’s incredulity at his situation, particularly when his daughter shows up. Meanwhile, Abigail Morgan as Frankie shows great comic timing in Frankie’s rebellious philosophical moments. Tom Slatter’s intensity often helps reenergise, with real intensity as the comic foil of Dominic, the slimy agent, and Victor von Fascist, king of the man-spider Nazis. The acting reflects the script to a large extent, which is well-pitched and keeps us engaged, and in particular used the metanarrative of Frankie talking to the author to great comic effect. There are just a few moments where it seems to lack a little direction, though it does have a suitably dramatic twist at the end.
The ace up the sleeve of the show though is the brave move of having the Foley (sound effects) recorded live, and which is more, it is largely a team of interns led by Andrew Crane, which is a really positive aspect. A lot of the time is spent intrigued at the innovative ways noises are made, hands squelching inside watermelons being perhaps the highlight. Seeing the human element and occasionally interaction, brings humour as well, such as the noise of a hug being created by a real hug. Bar the odd effect not heard, this is a great addition as it adds insight into the creation of atmosphere, and because the actors are not moving around, the distraction of watching the Foley artists is not detrimental, but instead gives another visual focal point. Despite inexperience, it is not noticeable that this may be their first professional production. The Foley is a big redeeming feature, and takes what is a funny, but somewhat unremarkable production and turns it into something more layered.
Despite some good humour, it still never seems to get into top gear, and while relatively enjoyable, and aided by the live Foley, it amounts to a solid story which doesn’t quite capture the imagination. The mitigation to this is of course its length and purely audio nature, but the characters, particularly Frankie just don’t quite have enough depth, or at least, I wanted to know more about them. It also appears to be in a sort of no man’s land between a slick, professional production and a demonstration workshop. This included a well-intentioned but somewhat patronising introduction from Ellie Pitkin, the director, (teaching us how to clap), who had otherwise developed the tone of the piece to great effect. It may have been more appropriate to bill it as an interactive evening learning about the recording of radio plays culminating in the live recording, as it would also have been wonderful to learn more about the Foley and what those in the tech box were doing, especially as it was such a relatively short piece.
An interesting experience then, and plenty of laughs, but the feeling is that there is untapped potential. One final note is to applaud the presence of a BSL interpreter signing for the audience.
The Final Adventure of Frankie Fightwell played at Putney Arts Theatre until 12 May
Photo: Putney Arts Theatre