I went to see a play tonight. The Air Around Us is produced by Lightbox, a London based theatre company that specializes in 'untold or overlooked' stories. Here is my review:
In a circle of light, a man wanders in a litter-strewn alley, gazing at the rubbish in an almost childlike way. Yoghurt pots, newspapers, cast-off headphones, offcuts of wood, a trunk, a typewriter, an old-fashioned dictaphone, he takes it all in, wide-eyed. He seems a little lost.
Like Vladimir or Estragon waiting for Godot, this vagrant has all the time in the world. Time to sit and think and roll his own cigarettes. Time to imagine, time to reminisce. He sits down on the trunk and notices a ragged piece of paper at his feet. He picks it up. He starts to read aloud. “To understand a place, you have to live it, breathe it…”
And thus the vagrant – let’s call him Estragon, why not? – begins to discover the story of George, an 80 year old resident of Battersea who understands the area as only someone of his generation can. Estragon mediates George’s story to us, by reading from bits of script strewn around the stage and pressing play and pause on the dictaphone. Through this dictaphone we hear George’s real voice, no less – REAL George who REALLY lives in Battersea, and (how meta is this?) happens to be sitting RIGHT BEHIND ME in the audience with his wife Margaret.
Estragon starts to find meaning in the litter around him. A duffel bag becomes an RAF parachute. Postcards from abroad tell of George’s posting in Malta and return to Battersea. He picks things up, handles them, listens to George’s words and experiences the full impact of each true story. Sometimes Estragon speaks George’s words along with him. Sometimes he carries on where the recorded voice leaves off, for he is becoming George, and so are we. Mischief, fear, joy and grief chase each other across Estragon’s face. The terror of the Blitz. The excitement of courtship and marriage. The birth of a daughter, Karen. And weaving in and out of George’s story is the the starkly beautiful poetry of Battersea itself: Chelsea Bridge. Albert Bridge. Battersea Bridge. Wandsworth Bridge. Clapham Junction.
The Air Around Us has the authenticity of a documentary and the emotional impact of a Beckett play. For a heady hour the audience can sit and think and get to know George and fall in love with Battersea. The play avoids sentimentality – the saddest parts of George’s story are related with a matter-of-factness that is almost shocking – but at the end, as George/Estragon stands at the window of his flat on the tenth floor of an apartment block soon to be pulled down, his eyes brim suddenly with real tears.
This is a brilliant performance – strong, confident and totally authentic. Liam Smith is the one-man cast and he communicates George’s story with feeling, humour and sensitivity. Great stuff.
If you live in Battersea, you need to see this play! It’s on at the Omnibus Clapham on Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 June (tomorrow and the night after). Starts at 7.30pm. Tickets available here or at the door.
Here is the show’s director Emma Faulkner talking about the production: