Arcola Theatre – until 13 July 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing is fast approaching, and Audible’s revival of Al Smith’s play captures the spirit of adventure and patriotism that swelled in the US about the Apollo missions.
Adam Gillen is captivating as Charlie Fairbanks Jr, born in the dead centre of the US at the dead centre of the twentieth century. Charlie begins tentatively, almost apologetically to talk about his parents, his childhood, and his dream of becoming an astronaut and walking on the moon. As Charlie tells his story, full of homespun humour and set against important events in US history, his passion for space and science shines through, with Gillen changing from hunching self-deprecation to wide-eyed and quietly passionate philosophising and educating about light and history. Charlie’s longing to become an astronaut leads to him making a naïve and devastating decision to join up and go to Vietnam, and the scars left from his tour of duty are visible in Smith’s script and Gillen’s expert performance. The darker side of the American dream casts a long shadow over Charlie’s family, but his outrage is saved for the growing apathy of the public about the space programme. The storytelling meanders and digresses into apparent dead ends, but everyone of these leads to a stirring payoff as the play progresses. Even Charlie’s initial gentle awkwardness and his need to share his story, even though some memories are still raw and painful all become clear when you realise who he is telling his story to and will bring a lump to your throat.
With just a chair and a banner of red white and blue threads on stage, there is no hiding place for Gillen, and he keeps the audience riveted with his understated but emotive performance. Director Josh Roche has created a production that is never static, with exquisite lighting that ranges between a stark white that fixes Charlie to the spot and a languid lunar glow in which he can lose himself as he takes the audience to the moon and back.