Radio | Tamarama Rock SurfersTo paraphrase (or perhaps butcher) Tony Kushner, Al Smith’s Radio is a personal meditation on national themes. The character of Charlie Fairbanks is a young man who is here to tell us his life story, having been born at the exact midpoint of the twentieth century (to the minute) in Lebanon, Kansas – then newly declared the geographical centre of the United States. With this as its opening premise, it immediately suggests that the true subject of this play is America itself, or, more specifically, postwar American society.

Charlie’s rambling story tells of a young life spent trailing around after his father, a somewhat impulsive man who made plans with considerable consequences without ever consulting those affected by them – his son and long-suffering wife. We hear the tale of how they came to be married, that they are then told one day that their property happens to be the exact centre of the U.S.A., and how this was then used to turn a profit from newly-arriving tourists. Charlie is born and eventually his father unilaterally uproots them to the Dakotas… where some implausible circumstances allow them to redouble their wealth and move on to even bigger and better things.

Without spoiling the details, Charlie’s father ends up getting quite rich from selling American flags, eventually becoming the country’s largest single manufacturer of these potent objects. The national themes in the play are quite evident, and continue to stack up as the young Charlie becomes caught up in the nationalistic fervor behind space travel, first through listening to a Buck Rodgers type radio serial and then by following the progress of the actual Space Race and the desperate one-upmanship with the Soviet Union. Sputnik and Gagarin are seen as major personal defeats for the boy, who endeavours to build his own treehouse rocket to beat the commies any way he can.

The optimism of the space program gives way to the national malaise of the Vietnam War and the draft, and finally we have an interesting parallel drawn between the two, the difficulty faced by astronauts and vets alike in surviving re-entry into normal society after the wonders and horrors they have seen and done. Charlie, born in the middle of both the American century and continent, son of a capitalistic flag-maker is clearly conceived of as a symbolic everyman. His simple, relatively uneventful story is a kind of meditation on the national mood and foibles of the United States and its sense of national pride and patriotism in the 1950s and ‘60s, stripped of the glamour or obfuscating nostalgia that is often associated with depictions of those decades.

This is an interesting play, but perhaps not an altogether fascinating one. Although it reaches for some larger thematic significance, the story as such is a simple, straightforward and fairly interior one. Nevertheless, the text is engaging and unpretentious, taking a somewhat unconventional approach to the rather overexposed issue of American cultural identity at the middle of the last century.

Staged plainly with a featureless black set, a single chair and a stylised representation of the heavens made from a multitude of hanging light bulbs (which, it must be said, produced an irritatingly loud buzzing, to say nothing of the asinine choice to place blinding additional lights at either end of the small stage), this is simple, dressed-down theatre that relies on the story it has to tell, and especially on the teller. Indeed, even running only an hour in length, a one-hander like this absolutely hinges on the quality of its performer, and fortunately here it is in good hands. Andrew Bibby is tremendously credible as Charlie, his impeccable American accent and endearing persona are perfect for the role, swaying from occasional humour to moments of pathos, we are taken on a very personal journey into the heart of a young man and, through him, that of a still fairly young nation. Perhaps an even more accomplished actor might have made the material leap off the page a little more, but by and large Bibby is to be roundly commended.

All that being said, however… Radio won’t be for everyone. Its fairly languid pace and personal yet undramatic content (insofar as no especially dramatic events are recounted) are very much the antithesis of the kind of high-energy, rollicking, edge-of-your seat type narratives that one-handers often favour. Indeed, this quiet, meditative story is so far in the opposite direction that some may find it mildly tedious, depending on their intrinsic interest in the subject matter. I note with some embarrassment that it had a literally soporific effect on my elderly companion until roughly the last third of the show.

Radio is the perfect antidote for those sick of the current three-ring farce that is the American electoral conventions with their repellant pomp and political harlotry. For an infinitely more subtle insight into a corner of the American psyche, this is a far better choice.

Gemeinschaft Dogs presents
By Al Smith

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre | 129 Dowling St, Woolloomooloo, NSW
Dates: Tuesday - Sunday, 27th August - 20th September

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