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This January Stuart Slade's sell-out drama BU21 transfers to Trafalgar Studios 2 following a run at Theatre503. The play follows six Londoners in the aftermath of a fictitious terrorist attack and is described as "terrifying, inspiring, brutal, heart-breaking and hilarious". Using verbatim text based on real testimonies gathered from a variety of terrorist incidents including the 7/7 bombings, 9/11, the Paris attacks and the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack, this is a 'terrifyingly credible' new play to welcome in 2017. <p>
We recently spoke to cast member Isabella Laughland who joins the production for the Trafalgar Studios run. Having made her professional acting debut in three of the Harry Potter films, she made her London stage debut in Nick Payne’s Wanderlust at the Royal Court which earned her a Outstanding Newcomer nomination at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Since then her career has taken in roles at the National Theatre (Greenland, The Last of the Haussmans), the Finborough and the Donmar Warehouse.
Dom O'Hanlon: It must be quite strange rehearsing a play such as BU21 just before Christmas when most people are busy with panto and more seasonal shows?
Isabella Laughland: Yeah I suppose it's weird. I did a play a few years ago at the National called Greenland and that was about climate change, and nobody really wanted to hear the real facts about it – essentially that we're all going to die. People don't want to face their fears and this is very much a fear that's a new thing and people are feeling more and more. In that it really shows a test of human character and the fight to survive, not to give up. Some of the characters in this play obviously have deep pain and deep despair, but within that there's sort of the rise of the human spirit I think.
DOH: How have you prepared for your role in the play, joining the company for the Trafalgar Studios run?
IL: I have just come aboard the show so what it really has been is a week with my director Dan Pick and really going over the six monologues that I have, then coming back to it with the movement of the piece after Christmas. I've really been watching a lot of documentaries about the Westgate Shopping Mall. What's really struck me is that because people have some distance away from it and can now look back and tell about the shooting going on over their heads, people can now be very calm about it, they're not crying about it but staying on top of that emotion. When it gets to them talking about their sons dying, that's when they start to cry, that emotion just never goes away, the pain that must just never go away.
DOH: As a Londoner, does the subject matter touch a particular nerve within you?
IL: I've never really thought about it, I've not been that kind of person who has been terrified about it. Recently I was in the cinema with a friend when the picture stopped and the fire alarms went off. There was a moment where I thought 'oh shit, something's happened'. It turned out to be a blackout in Piccadilly Circus, but for a second we just looked at each other and thought 'this is it – there's nothing we can really do'. It sounds a little cliché but I try to live day by day in the best way I possibly can.
DOH: What's been the biggest challenge in taking on this role?
IL: It's all monologues – but what's great about Stuart's writing is that it's quite easy to learn. It's knotty in places but every thought I understand and can understand having and it just flows really nicely. What it does demand is to really be there and imagine it. Dan has encouraged me to have those images in my head, whatever the situation, which was incredibly distressing and horrible and I can't really imagine that devastation happening in our city. I don't want to play boring girl next door. It's all to do with the writing for me, I'm not picky at all, I'm not at that stage. It's about the writing and the director – if I believe in that character and that they have something to say then it's great. You have to identify with them and care for them in some way.
DOH: It's not all doom and gloom - how does the play balance the humour as well as the pain?
IL: My character isn't particularly humorous, but some of it is there to deflect the pain. There's a character called Alex. Stuart Slade has a sort of twisted mind when it comes to his humour with Alex. It has to be there otherwise it would all just be too bleak, there's lots of humour peppered in there – it is funny. When I saw it I found myself laughing and would catch myself and think no – I shouldn't be laughing at this bit, but it's really funny. Otherwise it's all too painful, with what's gone on in 2016. I remember when Trump was elected I thought thank god 'I'm a Celebrity' has started...we needed some light relief. There's always Ant and Dec.
DOH: Do the intimate surrounds of Trafalgar 2 help the intensity of the drama or does that proximity scare you?
IL: I'm also quite terrified about that, the audience are literally on your lap. There's no escape really, it commands that power over the audience, especially with monologues – you have to listen to me. It's really fascinating. It's a bit like stand up comedy, some people are really with you, some people just don't want to engage in eye contact at all and will look anywhere but you. I'll be a little minx and just hone in on them. It's weird because my natural instinct is to do a monologue directly to one character who I speak about a lot, and try and connect with them. It's actually very odd, but I welcome the discipline of having to learn seven monologues.
DOH: It must be a difficult topic to live with at work and also research. How do you keep it light away from the rehearsal room?
IL: You know what, it's my dreams that have been affected – my day to day has been fine, it affects me when I fall asleep. It's overwhelming to research, I remember watching a documentary about Westgate and the lone gunman in Tunisia on the beach. There's so much out there, it just sort of stacks up, it really does. I try not to let it affect me too much until it needs to in the play.
DOH: Despite being a difficult watch, what do you think audiences can take away from BU21?
IL: It's theatre and it's a bit of escapism – that's why we turn to art when everything does get a bit too much. I know the subject matter isn't particularly cheery but there are moments of the strong human spirit coming out. I remember feeling exhausted when I saw the play, you definitely feel like you've experienced something and it lingers with you afterwards and makes you think. You'll be walking around London and you'll continue to think about it.
BU21 runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 from 4-31 January 2017.