Stuart Slade’s first play ‘BU21’ gives a timely answer to the question that Londoners now ask themselves every day: “What would happen in another terrorist attack?” The plays transfers from the renowned Theatre503 to Studio2 in Trafalgar Studios and is produced by Slade’s own Kuleshov company. It is a sparking, honest and irreverent piece of verbatim theatre.
Slade’s play centres on the shared experiences of six people after a passenger plane is shot down over London, crashing in Fulham. It takes place at a support group, each person stepping out to deliver monologues and very occasionally speaking with each other – mostly to huge comic effect. While it is not exactly an original concept, the play gets its heart from the human stories coupled with fiercely affecting performances. Each character, named after the actor, shares their own experiences of the atrocity, as well as their life following. Several are highly dismissive of the others. All of them are deeply affected by the tragedy.
What has the potential to be a flat recounting of tragedy flourishes into a quirky and engaging dialogue of human experience. Izzy, played by the only new cast member Isabella Laughland, discovers that her mother has died in the attack. Laughland gives an intense performance and leads us confidently through the production from her opening monologue delivered amongst the audience. Her familiar twenty-first century humanity engages us from the first sentence.
Ana has been put in a wheelchair and struggles to deal with her new way of life. Roxana Lupu is the only weak link in an otherwise strong cast, showing little to no emotional journey for Ana throughout. Her story-telling is detached and emotionally bereft. Also, in the current equal-opportunity climate, it feels like a missed opportunity here to cast an able-bodied actor in a wheel-chair based role.
Florence Roberts gives an honest and relatable portrayal of Floss; a typical, English twenty-something as she tries to deal with the death of a man taking place in her back garden.
Clive Keene competently appears as the predictable Muslim not-a-terrorist, however this expectation is thankfully played with to great effect. At first, Clive feels like little more than a plot device for “a message” which has been sent before, however Keene manages to infuse him with just enough childish humanity to make him real. In any case, Clive is a message that needs to be sent again and again in a world in which Trump is to be President.
Alex is perhaps the most revolutionary of the set, giving Slade’s play a self-awareness that makes it even easier to connect with. Alex Forsyth offers a veritable torrent of black humour and barely smothered self-loathing. His energetic performance and cavalier breaking of the Fourth Wall even leads to juicy moments of ad-lib with audience members.
Finally, Graham O’Mara offers us the un-lovable yob caught in the middle of something too large for him not to take advantage of. His performance is solid and the character offers a nice twist to expose the frailty of our egos. The six offer a nice balance of the tragic tinged with the gross comedy that is humanity.
It does feel like ‘BU21’ struggles for space in the small Studio2 , however the close thrust space does allow the required intimacy for the piece to work. The staging is simple yet effective using only the chairs and biscuits of the support group to create several spaces and moments through the six stories, including a particularly surreal moment during one of Izzy’s speeches. Small piles of rubble are sparsely strewn around simple lighting rigs on-stage as a nod to the devastation. Lighting is also humble and the production’s occasional use of sound gives reasonable effect.
Overall ‘BU21’ is an engrossing and visceral piece of new-writing. A steady concept offers strong foundations for a topical, human story which explores our worst fears with a wry grin. ‘BU21’ will play at Trafalgar Studios until 18th February.
‘BU21’ is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 18 February
Photo by David Monteith-Hodge