Kuleshov Theatre and Theatre503
There is now a familiar sequence. A violent atrocity takes place in a European city. Briefly we see and hear the confused shocked victims and survivors. Politicians denounce terrorism. Then we move on to other events. Little further is heard about the survivors of the atrocity.
Stuart Slade’s play BU21 responds to this by focusing on six survivors of the imagined explosion of Flight BU21 over Battersea Bridge in July 2016.
In a series of monologues and a couple of short dialogues, loosely linked by a survivors' therapy group, these young people tell the audience about the way the explosion affected their lives.
The banker Alex (Alex Forsyth) tells us that the crash killed his girlfriend and best friend as "they were fucking. And I didn’t know."
Ana (Roxana Lupu) describes sunbathing on Eel Brook Common when the explosion covered her in burning aviation fuel.
Thalissa (Thalissa Teixeira) was working in an office when she read on Twitter that her mother had been killed by debris from the explosion.
Clive’s (Clive Keene) father, a cardiologist, was a passenger in Flight BU21, his body landing still seated on the garden of Floss (Florence Roberts), a student making a sandwich in her kitchen.
Graham (Graham O’Mara), a building firm driver who rushed to the scene, becomes a media celebrity after making an impassioned speech about the spirit of Londoners. He also falsely claims he saved a number of people.
Stuart Slade shows how the tragedy becomes an opportunity for most of the six. Graham makes a great deal of money from a ghost-written book about himself. Alex’s promotion prospects improve as a result of the explosion killing a number of bankers. He also manages to use the therapy group to find a partner from an influential family. Clive gets into a relationship with the woman who watched his father die.
Any one of these accounts of the benefits of a terrible tragedy might make us uncomfortable. But this play cynically digs deeper into other disturbing aspects to these characters.
When the body lands in Floss’s garden, the thought that runs through her head is a line from the song "It’s Raining Men". Alex tells us that he saw the survivors' group as a good place to pull vulnerable women. Graham, the fraudulent celebrity hero makes a racist speech to the group.
Even the efforts of the community to heal its wounds catch the cynical gaze of Stuart Slade. The final speech of the play about everyone pulling together is made in front of national dignitaries such as the Queen and Prime Minister by the racist fraud Graham. As for those raising funds for the victims, Thalissa, a charity PR, tells us it is such a crowded market that "every single fucker in Fulham is endowing something or other" so she ends up endowing in memory of her mother, "a home for severely injured owls in Leicestershire".
That got a laugh from some in the audience and you could be forgiven for suspecting that much of the cynicism of the text is aimed at raising such laughs rather than attempting any insight into the character of survivors. But then that is exactly how tabloids such as The Sun and The Express have treated victims and survivors. Think of the victims of Hillsborough and the shocking treatment of Madeline McCann’s family.
The play is entertaining enough. The words characters use catches the naturalistic language we are used to. But there are things about it that will bother us.
We might be uncomfortable with the cynicism and the way that it seems by the end of the play to suggest that the Muslim character Clive might improbably become extremely religious as a result of a failed personal relationship.
But, most of all, we can come away disappointed that the usual silence about survivors has in this show been replaced by characters that are little better than the fantasies favoured by tabloid journalism.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna