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138

[The following contains spoilers.]

Archie Thomson’s clever new black comedy “Radio” actually puts two different plays on stage and derives all of its impetus from the tension between them. The first is a colourless sitcom and the second is all glossy blackness. This is very much a story that you have to stick with.

The venue is Paradise in Augustine’s and the outfit is Oxford University’s Sunscreen Productions. At first “Radio” resembles the generic student flatshare comedy and its familiarity aches like a buttock. There are six early-twentysomethings who are all about to leave university and “enter adult life.” Think Ella Hickson’s “Boys” (2012) and every identical play that has come before and after it. There is an improbable assortment of clichéd characters (the lesbian one, the down-to-earth Northern one, the weird neurotic one) and the normal tangle of jealousies and unrequitable passions. I have seen this play so many times – a play that is hatched by the student writer who can see no further than the end of their sofa – and after ten minutes I was thoroughly fuming. Why can’t the Fringe authorities ban this sort of production and drive them all out of the city, so that they have to be performed in the forests by outlaws?

I was assuming that “Radio” would wend its predictable way until I had quite forgotten its title and synopsis. There is a radio in the corner of the flatshare that keeps switching itself on. I had initially dismissed this element of the story as aimless or inconsequential. “Radio” has apparently chosen to sell itself as a commentary on the topical wrangle about “Generation Snowflake.” The radio set broadcasts snatches of phone-ins and studio discussions on the supposed narcissism of the young. Once you are deep into this play and you have realised that the characters are, if not exactly fun or likeable, then well-drawn and engrossing, it will hit you that the radio is that most welcome of all things: spooky. It has a will of its own. Now the radio is broadcasting secrets and confidences – to characters who were never meant to hear them.

It might take you a while to place the character of Steph (Alexandra Ackland-Snow) but you will eventually. She is the same personality who was suspiciously in the vicinity of the Bell Witch and the Enfield Poltergeist, a manipulative sexual hysteric who is either controlling the radio with a concealed gadget or through telepathy. Amidst this unhomely household of randomly mismatched students who can’t read each other, perhaps we are the only ones to spy the security tag on Steph’s hoodie.

So, like its eponymous star, “Radio” plays dead for a long time and then comes unexpectedly to life. The moments of horror are brief but very ably executed. I am minded to scotch any potential interpretation that the radio is benevolent. I doubt that it is really sincere about bringing the wretched rapist Tom (Christian Bevan) to justice. Practically, the audience cannot take home the knowledge that Tom has been brought to justice. We never see the cuffs on him and there is instead a galloping hysteria or claustrophobia to Tom’s trial-in-the-kitchen that is not morally fortuitous. Our paradox is this: if the radio is telling the truth then it must be good, but is so scary that it surely cannot be.

My mother told me, as no doubt yours told you, that you should never play with a Ouija board because they are always out to make mischief. Is the radio just a little box of spite? The final ten minutes of this drama are so tense that it looks as if the household is about to explode into violence at any second. In a brilliantly suspenseful device, we are told from the outset that a policeman has made an appointment with these students. This becomes more and more ominous. Will the policeman arrive to find all the students murdered and the radio looking very sweet and innocent?

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