Mark Cartwright and Tim Johanson present a Kuleshov production
Trafalgar Studios (Studio 2)
Looking forward a few months to summer 2017, Stuart Slade’s play presents the aftermath of a terrorist outrage: a plane has been shot down over London.
CCTV recordings caught the actual firing of a Russian missile, of a kind easily available from the underground arms trade, from a van somewhere in Vauxhall. It hit the plane as it passed over Battersea making it crash and wreak havoc through Fulham and Parsons Green, killing not only all on board but many on the ground.
BU21, named for the flight number, is made up of interwoven monologues from six people directly affected and linked by a survivors’ counselling group they attend. We get their individual reactions and later developments, which lead to some interaction.
There is a young woman who was sitting at her office desk when there was an explosion that blew all the windows. She immediately Googled “London Explosion” and then goes rushing out to make sure her mother is safe, but whole streets have been flattened as the plane ploughed through them. In fact her mother has been killed in Kings Road by the impact of one of the plane’s engines.
There is a young woman who was out for a walk on Eel Pie Common who, when the plane exploded on hitting the ground, is drenched in burning aviation fuel. Now in pain in a wheelchair with multiple operations ahead, she becomes suicidal.
There’s a guy from Bermondsey who drives a builder’s van, the first on the scene to be interviewed by the media, who now becomes a minor celebrity for trying to save survivors.
There is a well-off young student who dashes home to find she has missed the destruction but there’s her father in shock, there is burnt oil smattered on the garden wall and on the lawn a deep hole and a body in the last throws of life.
There is yuppie banker whose flat has gone and his girlfriend with it, his trauma less over the loss than that she was fused to the body of his best friend who was fucking her.
Then there is the young man whose father was on the plane, in desperate need of coming to terms with it, especially since there had been a rupture between them over religion and ethics.
Sometimes speaking to the survivors group, sometimes to themselves or to us, the audience, these voices juxtapose and interrupt each other. There is interaction without being dialogue, theatricality blending into direct personal exposure as chairs are pushed in or removed or a whole huddle of furniture is held above crouching figures to represent carnage, or a line projected straight at an individual audience member.
This isn’t a play about terrorists but about all our reactions, the many ways post-traumatic stress can affect us. And it is not just the media who exploit such disaster. There are lies in the midst of all this confiding: and what about those who aren’t directly affected?
Alex Forsyth’s embittered banker poses the question to everyone of why are they there: paying to hear about pain and listen to horror stories? He cynically tells us that his survivors' group is a good place to pull. He’s successful too, with Isabella Laughland’s media whizz, even better she has great family connections that will help him climb higher.
Florence Roberts’s student, haunted by the image of a dying man still strapped in a plane seat, finds herself pursued by Clive Keene’s doctor’s son. Graham O’Mara’s driver finds himself making Churchillian speeches. Roxana Lupu as wheelchair-bound Ana finds life goes on fighting.
"Is this entertaining?" you may well ask. Yes, if you like entertainment to be serious and here that is also loaded with humour. It is often very funny, whether satirising esoteric patterns of charity or exposing the reach of self-interest and it very successfully wrong-foots the audience exposing in-built prejudice.
BU21 is essentially and engagingly theatrical but its performances make it seem truly authentic. Dan Pick’s production, first seen at Battersea’s Theatre 503 last spring, skilfully switches attention among its participants with the flashing tubes of Christopher Nairne’s lighting hinting at both explosion and camera flash.
Each personal sharing becomes a concentrated outpouring set against a darkness where a once-cuddled Mickey Mouse pokes out a trickle of debris that still lies against the wall. Like the setting, there is a lot here that is almost subliminal despite the sharper shape of its surface. Worth seeing!
Reviewer: Howard Loxton