Review: The Balloonist Masterplan: Forgotten Lives

A wild ride through time and space filled with robots, prison breaks and lots of tea

CN: Mention of torture, death, prison, brief mention of coronavirus

In “The Balloonist Masterplan”, the sequel to Jonathan Powell’s first lockdown radio theatre project (“The Man in the Air Balloon”), the listener is thrust into a dizzying world of space robots, shape-shifting and forgotten souls. Creativity is valued over human life in the play’s fictional world of The Gulf, a paradise or prison depending on who you ask. It is a world in which one hour of exercise a month is deemed sufficient, and torture is simply quotidian, yet the people have been brainwashed to believe themselves to be happy.

Indeed, as the play goes on, a news broadcast announces that there’s been “reports of disappearances… disappearances… there are no disappearances”, this phrase rewriting itself in real time in order to erase the people who it’s easier not to think about. This is clearly an uneasy and uncertain world.

But Powell’s world is also one which feels remarkably visual, an impressive feat for a play relying entirely on audio. This is due, in part, to some charming and energetic voice acting from the talented cast. While it is perhaps impossible to name all 23 of them, there were a few standout performances.

Linseigh Green shone as the frantic and unhinged Governor of The Gulf, Leila Varok. Varok’s gradual loss of control, beginning with a crease in the curtains and ending with something much more sinister, was executed to perfection by Green.

Image credit: Amber De Ruyt

The zany scientist Helon (Jago Wainwright) was a highly entertaining character, while Theo Rooney captured slimy, second-in-command Nigel’s power-lust very well. I was also glad to discover the return of the therapist from the first play, voiced by Clancy Peiris Jr in soft, soothing tones which really made me wish I was the one being offered so much tea. There were also strong performances from Daniel Ellis, Emily Rose James and Powell, among others.

Special mention must also be given to Anna-Maria Woodrow’s beautifully crafted sound design and composition. Not only did Woodrow’s high-quality sound effects really help with visualising this wacky world, but much of the sound punctuated the more abstract descriptions stunningly. One moment that stood out was the line “it’s just white”, which was accompanied by a hollow, eerie sound which somehow perfectly fit the description.

Image credit: Emily Shen

While the team was strong all round, the downside of such a large cast was that the plot was often quite difficult to follow. Radio drama does not lend itself to complex plots or an abundance of characters distinguishable only by their voices, and thus at times I found myself too wrapped up in attempting to understand what was happening to be able to feel fully immersed in the action and entirely invested in the characters. This was a shame, as the creativity and thought which had gone into the writing were manifest.

Ultimately, “The Balloonist Masterplan” is comedic, inventive and light-hearted, yet it also has an unavoidably more sincere message beneath its fantastical guise. It serves as a pertinent reminder not to forget the lives of the people we have known and lost, a reminder that pain and suffering do not disappear just because we have averted our eyes and chosen the easier path of ignorance.

Perhaps such a message has never been more relevant, in a world in which everyone is talking about a post-pandemic “return to normality,” choosing to selectively forget that which has been lost along the way.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable and interesting – if at times confusing – whimsical space-themed radio play, then tune in to “The Balloonist Masterplan: Forgotten Lives” here! 4/5

Featured image credit: Emily Shen

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