The provocative London hit, following survivors of a terrorist act, makes its Australian premiere
An individual’s relationship to trauma and terror is complex, situational, and personal. BU21 attempts to delve into the aftermath of a terrorist attack on London from six points of view; all characters are members of a small support group for victims. Three men, three women, tea and biscuits – as one character jokes, it’s like a fucked-up version of Friends.
Ana (Jessica-Belle Keogh) has been burned to the point of paralysis and struggles with the scope of her injuries; Alex (Skyler Ellis) loses his girlfriend and best friend at the same time; Thalissa (Emily Havea) finds out through Twitter that her mother has died; Clive (Bardiya McKinnon) must face the unexpected death of his father, with whom he had a rocky relationship; Floss (Whitney Richards) saw a man die in front of her, after he fell from the sky into her backyard; and Graham (Jeremy Waters) starred as the media’s first eye-witness soundbite (think: this guy).
Stuart Slade’s script is built from stereotypes and clichés – there's a pain-fuelled romance, a typical douchebag finance guy, a brave invalid who must choose to live – and while there are a few twists that upend the predictable narrative, they’re never exactly surprising (like a feeble feint at making the sole Muslim character the villain, or the addition of a hero who isn’t quite what he seems).
While it's a slightly more diverse cast than we see on Australian stages (not everyone is white, and there is a part for a wheelchair user – which has been cast with an able-bodied woman) BU21 still places the most value on its male narratives: the central conflict is between the two white men onstage; Thalissa devolves into being defined by her love life; and it's the young straight white guy who gets to break the fourth wall and string sub-plots together. It's hard to accept the play as the true cross-section of experiences it wants to be when we spend more time with two characters than the other four, arguably more interesting, people.
Emotional labour is, for better or worse, often handed to women, both in plays and in modern Western society, and certainly this script doesn’t hesitate to conform to gender roles, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the women – with Havea’s considered, self-deprecating exploration of Thalissa’s grief; Richards’ slow-building emotional catharsis; and Keogh’s luminous demeanour – lift the play into something more than the sum of its fairly basic parts.
The play turns grating when douchebag finance guy Alex (Skyler Ellis) becomes our narrator; Ellis’s performance is as smarmy and insufferable as it should be, but it’s Slade’s attempt to use Alex to manipulate the audience that really chafes. He accuses us of assuming Clive is a terrorist because he’s Muslim, cracking jokes about supposedly enlightened leftie theatre-goers; but if those assumptions are held by the audience, it’s because Slade wrote clues into the story – it’s a bit much to accuse the audience of participating in your own baldly manipulative narrative.
Erin Taylor (who directed a fantastic production of Patricia Cornelius’s SLUT at Festival Fatale in 2016) directs with a thoughtful hand: she never rushes to a revelation, as tempting as it might be in a play structured largely as a series of monologues; she allows the banal to hold as much significance as the extraordinary. She can’t stop the class tensions laid out in the text – the plane crashes in a 'posh' London suburb – from feeling rote and underdeveloped – more throwaway idea than driving factor in shaping the myth of the event.
BU21 feels a little like trauma porn – a glorified exploration of victimhood for no greater purpose than to make an audience weep – but Taylor’s take on the script is one of welcome and necessary earnestness. These catastrophes can happen to anyone, the production stresses.
And if it catches you on the right night – one when you’re afraid for the country or for the world – the play might collide with your emotions and speak to them clearly. But if it catches you when you’re less vulnerable it might not have any impact at all.
Really didn't expect much as we arrived at this sweaty ramshakle venue. Very quickly though realized we were in for a treat. The ensemble are world class, and the writing razor sharp. It was a bit like having Jamie Oliver cook in your home. Just 4 rows of seats, the audience being treated to acting and drama worthy of a very large theatre. Go and enjoy!