Sometimes theatre can bring you face to face with one of your greatest fears and provide moments of sheer hilarity whilst unpacking a distressing and altogether troubling subject. Simon Slade's BU21 does just this, tapping into the fear, anxieties and unspoken worries that currently plague Londoners - the notion that a terrorist attack on the city and its people is more a question of 'when' rather than 'if'.
If you're anything like me it's a subject that remains firmly at the forefront of your mind every day, from riding the tube to jumping on a bus to even crossing a bridge. Why then is Slade's intimate drama so effective at calming the nerves and producing an overly cathartic effect on its (nervous) audience ?
It's partly due to the lack of hysteria in his writing. Set in the near future in the wake of a terrorist attack - flight BU21 brought down by a ground to air missile, devastating Fulham - the topic is explored with a sort of soft charm and stubbornly British resolve that sheds the histrionics and imagines life soon after the event for a collection of characters all brought together by the same tragedy. Through the structure of a PTSD support group each narrative unravels slowly, challenging our preconceptions and stereotypes. It's structure is its greatest asset, as each story becomes softly connected and through the series of monologues we become implicit in each journey as well as the collective.
Unlike Simon Stephens' Pornography, the stories are deeply personal and individual - they're never faceless or universal, instead each character is well crafted and neatly unpacked. The language is overly coarse at times and some of the humour can push a little too hard, but as a whole the idiosyncratic style pulls together effectively as one.
It's fiercely well acted with the strong ensemble fully grasping the verbatim documentary style that feels real and confessional although never isolating. They speak directly to you, engaging their audience and never feeling shy about breaking the fourth wall. Full credit to director Dan Pick for delivering a stylish and efficient production that plays with visual metaphor in an understated yet powerful way, with sensitive lighting, sound and set design that is constantly working together for a greater aim.
It's not always an easy watch and Pick ensures the audience don't simply settle down to indulge in the 'misery porn'. There are elements of Theatre of Cruelty that involve the audience and directly address them, never feeling trite or over pushed, instead it's used solely by one character to make us ask ourselves what we're doing there in the first place, blending the line between audience and voyeur in a way that feels necessary to both style and subject matter.
The play inevitably raises questions much bigger than itself, namely the idea of whose lives matter more and the uncomfortable idea that an attack in Fulham could lead to a different reaction to one in a 'poorer' area of London. Despite this I was inspired by the resolve and community the city showed standing shoulder to shoulder post attack, which, however fictional, provides some level of solace for the nervous spectator. Cathartic, inspiring and exceptionally well executed, this is a painfully necessary contemporary drama.
What the Press Said...
"A play that questions our assumptions about collective heroism and makes fascinating drama out of personal trauma."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"If occasionally you reckon that the play is too relentlessly self-aware, Dan Pick’s tonally adroit, excellently acted production balances the cynicical knowingness with finely captured feeling."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Such an accomplished piece as this bodes very well for theatre in 2017."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard