Al Smith originally wrote Radio for Kandinsky to stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in 2006, now, fifty years since the moon landing, it comes to London and the Arcola Theatre in a production from Audible, who will also release a studio recording of this monologue which examines a young man’s desire to find his place in the world, and out of it.
Born slap bang in the middle of the 20th century, Charlie Lebanon Fairbanks Jr.is the son of an enterprising farmer turned flagmaker, who keeps one ear on the radio static and the other on political shifts. As States are added to the union, he moves his family across America, always one step ahead of the next ‘centre of the USA’ being identified.
For Charlie, his dream is not sewing stars on to flags, it’s reaching the stars for real as an astronaut. And, as he chases this aspiration, we follow not only his life, but the changing world in which he lives, all aligned to the Apollo space missions. Director Josh Roche, has utilised the shallow, stretched out space of the Arcola Studio, giving depth not only to Charlie’s words, but the world he inhabits, while some beautiful lighting design from Peter Small helps further intensify the feeling of mid-20th Century America.
Al Smith’s own father worked on the first Apollo mission, so there’s a sense of authority from the outset. But Radio is very much more than a space story, it charts the highs and lows of life, while examining socio-political themes, all woven in to a tale of the bond between father and son.
It’s a really splendidly written monologue, and you’re never really sure on which course it is set. Throwaway comments early on, turn out to have real significance further down the line, while the storyline darts and weaves into unknown territory only occasionally; always returning to its central theme just in time for the audience to grasp the significance of what’s been said.
It runs a testing eighty-five minutes for its solo performer, yet Adam Gillen navigates it with ease. His unassuming portrayal of Charlie Fairbanks Jr. is both endearing and impactful. Other characters find their way into the plot, with Gillen merely changing his voice or body position to assume these other roles, drawing the audience in to the enthralling tales of an ordinary man.
Not only is Radio an exemplary piece of storytelling, it is a play that is itself about storytelling. As Fairbanks, Adam Gillen is telling the story directly to us, but parts of it are stories he has been told, and stories he will tell again.
It’s probably fair to say that most of us cannot imagine what its like to dream of being an astronaut, but we can all identify with an individual who has hopes, and must forge a path that they believe will lead them to their ultimate goal. Radio tunes out the static and reaches in to the heart of human existence, reminding us that we don’t all have to reach for the stars, we can achieve more than we ever dreamed with our feet planted firmly on the ground.