The performance BU21 at Trafalgar Studios is set in the aftermath of a fictional tragedy: a jet was shot by a surface-to-air missile and crashed in Fulham, South-West London, leaving hundreds of people dead and thousands injured.
However fictional, this event reminds us of the tragedies that occur nowadays with frightening regularity – school massacres, suicide bombs, mass shootings… Pretty grim subject for a play performed at the theatre in the very heart of the West End, but the location – between the main tourist attractions (as well as terrorist targets): Big Ben and Trafalgar Square – makes the subject even more relevant.
The first character comes on stage from the audience, as if demonstrating that she is one of us: a girl on crutches, called Izzy, her mum died in the crash. She tells us that when you watch such atrocities on tv, “you can’t conceive this happening to you, but then it does…” How would you cope? This becomes the main question of the performance.
The director Dan Pick and set designer Alex Doidge-Green place the actors on the bare stage the size of an ordinary living room. There is a broken fluorescent tube among the small amount of rubble on the floor and a few working in the ceiling, they flash alarmingly throughout the performance. There are also five chairs, which become the metaphor of the airplane rubble as the characters lift them up with the chairs’ legs sticking dangerously in every direction while a girl in a wheelchair Ana tells us how she got burnt so badly. She now lives on verge of suicide.
Six people meet in a PTSD group, we witness their monologues, describing the tragedies they were part of and their lives afterwards. Sometimes they stop, unable to speak, as their memories become too vivid and they can’t express their emotions in words. Floss, a young girl who witnessed a man dying in her garden after he fell from the airplane, is now haunted by his face. As she finds out that “70% of the passengers were conscious while they were falling”, she establishes that it takes a whole 22 seconds for the airplane to fall to the ground. She counts in complete darkness as the director forces us to go through a psychological experiment and imagine what it’s like to know for 22 seconds that your death is imminent.
As the monologues intertwine they create a reality which keeps us close to tears but is also surprisingly full of laughter. Alex, the young banker, who’s girlfriend was killed while in bed with his best friend, “they were fused together”, tells us that the PTSD group is the best place to pull a girl. His feigned cynicism is his way to cope and it also questions every type of hypocrisy throughout the performance, even the entertainment value of a play about “horrific human suffering”, as Alex addresses the audience directly, “How much did you pay? 35 quid for this!”
The director uses Bertolt Brecht’s distancing techniques as Alex speaks to the audience or other characters comment on their own emotions, as if diving out of the situation their characters are in. Floss meets the son of the man killed in her garden, a young Asian guy called Clive, and she tells us about the rollercoaster of emotions she goes through as Clive freezes next to her in the attempt to kiss her. Clive also reflects on his emotions at that time. While saying that “love has changed him utterly”, he suggests that it might also have been fuelled by “the small amount of MDMA”. Tiny details like this become warning signs in the play by Stuart Slade, which is stripped of any hints of political correctness as the characters, who derive their names from the names of the actors, tell us things just as they are.
Clive, who was bullied and called Osama Bin Laden at school after 9/11, became Muslim to rebel against his father. We learn that he wanted to go to Syria to help as he heard about children being gassed. The actor tells us with simplicity and ease how he was only stopped from going by his father and how useful it is to look muslim and start praying on a bus to scare away people eating smelly food… While frequently joking, Clive is the only character that goes through true transformation during the performance, others just narrate their emotional states. A small detail that he started growing beard again as his relationship with Floss broke down makes us wonder what is next for him.
The play, full of dark humour, borders on the absurd, as it touches upon most sensitive subjects, such as the hypocrisy of setting up a charity. When Izzi and Alex, who become a couple, find out that there are already three charities raising money for the local nursery, they set up a charity “for the home for seriously injured owls in Lincolnshire in the legacy of mum”. It turns out that Graham, featured on the national tv as a hero who saved several people, in fact was nowhere near the tragedy. This does not stop him from writing a book based on the stories he heard at the PTSD group, while swigging alcohol out of a bottle. “You’ve done f…ing good, boy!”- tells he to himself after presenting his book to The Queen. And the lights flicker in disbelief.
The director and the playwright, who is also the director of a company specialising in film documentaries about disaster response, are clearly aiming to show us the impact of such tragedies hidden from the mass media. A great performance for those who are tired of political correctness and aren’t afraid of painful frankness and strong language.