BU21 at Trafalgar Studios 2CultureTheatre
Terrorism has become part of the fabric of everyday life. Attacks occur on a constant basis around the globe, with London permanently anticipating another local tragedy. With BU21, writer and director Stuart Slade imagines this very situation, casting his narrative in the aftermath of an incident that sees a plane shot down over Fulham.
That description conjures a very specific kind of tone: a dour, serious exploration of our modern response to terror. And the way the space is constructed suggests as much, with post-attack detritus scattered around the stage and harsh fluorescent lights wonkily hung from the ceiling. What makes BU21 such a joy, however, is the way in which it warps the tropes that tend to populate such dramas.
First and foremost is the fact that it isn’t really a drama at all, but rather the blackest of black comedies. Of course, any play that deals with flesh rendered into pulled pork and mothers killed by bouncing jet engines outside a Space NK is still going to be pretty grim. Yet Slade has produced a piece of writing that is full of such ghoulish humour that it has far more in common with Chris Morris’s Four Lions than a Lifetime weepy about loss, where tragedy becomes more potent sitting side by side with the absurd.
Braver than this is Slade’s choice to present deeply almost off-puttingly flawed people, rather than saccharine ciphers for a patronising pity party. Alex Forsyth’s banker, perhaps the best performance in a strong ensemble, remains a shining example of toxic masculinity until the end; Graham O’Mara’s van driver is bigoted and deceitful, despite a tender longing to belong to something unified; and Isabella Laughland’s grieving daughter lacks self-awareness throughout her sorrow. Even the more likeable characters don’t undergo any great changes; they just end the play a few steps ahead of where they were at the beginning. It’s a journey that feels far more true to life than any alternative, where scars don’t heal but gradually fade.
Yet this is no slice of neutered realism. Slade has Forsyth’s obnoxious city boy liberally break the fourth wall, aggressively challenging the voyeurism that lurks behind the audience’s empathy while challenging their assumptions surrounding certain characters. At times the playwright pushes this device too far; ditto the use of vulgarity which, though often uproarious, can feel like a linguistic crutch towards the end of the piece. These over-eager elements are overlooked, however, thanks to the poignantly anarchic way Slade treats his undoubtedly serious subject matter.
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
BU21 is at Trafalgar Studios 2 from 11th January until 18th February 2017. Book your tickets here.