Paul Johnson | 31 Mar 2018 11:40am
BU21 at Putney Arts Centre might not be your first choice for a night out. ‘As passenger jet BU21 makes its descent towards Heathrow it is targeted by a terrorist missile. Smashing into Fulham, its engine bouncing down the New King’s Road, it causes hundreds of deaths and horrendous devastation. In the aftermath, six survivors relate their eye witness accounts of the attack and its impact on their lives through a series of interconnecting monologues.’
On reading the blurb on their website you would not be blamed for perhaps looking to see if there was a production of The Importance of Being Earnest playing somewhere or a light-hearted musical to while away your evening. However, despite the fact that it sound like the gloomiest of plays it managed in turns to be laugh-out-loud funny, tender, haunting and desperately sad.
The studio at the Putney Arts Centre seats around fifty people and has the inconvenience of what appears to be a buttress and a radiator along one wall. These are sensibly incorporated into a collection of angular wooden slats reminiscent of debris, which create the feeling of wreckage, and apart from two bar stools the play progresses on an empty stage. Running an hour, forty-five, with no interval it sweeps the audience along as each character steps out of the audience and recalls the horrific events of July 22nd, 2017. The technique of having the cast interspersed within the audience helps create the feeling that these six characters are ordinary people, people just like us, who were going about their daily business when the unthinkable happens and changes their lives for ever.
Alex, Floss, Izzy, Graham, Clive and Ana use us as their opportunity to tell their tale. We are a safe place as we don’t answer back and we will leave the theatre and they will never have to see us again. It is a cathartic experience for them and leaves you feeling like you have experienced a piece of verbatim theatre, although in fact Stuart Slade, the author, has created these characters and their words himself. In an interview for The Stage he said he felt that the monologue form would allow them to tell the audience what they think is the truth but. ‘The truths you tell yourself can be just as deceptive as the truths you tell other people.’ So it is up to us to sift through their words, share their stories and consider how we might react to a terrorist attack and what impact it might have on our lives.
We first meet Izzy, played by Hannah Wheatley, who sees the image of her dead mother lying on the Kings Road when she googles the crash. There is a fragility to her performance that belies the strength of the character, whose determination to honour her mother, allbeit with a charity to protect owls, is consistent throughout the play. Her opening monologue, describing running barefoot through the streets to reach her mother is gripping and draws the audience straight into the events.
Ana (Emma Miles) is a Romanian waitress, who is covered in burning jet fuel as she sunbathes in the park. Moving from wheelchair-bound to walking with a crutch, we see her gradual acceptance that life is something we fight for even when we think we want to die. We watch her slowly withdraw into herself, even leaving the support group where the six characters meet, for a while. Her measured, assured performance holds a brutal honesty as she describes the mother whose skin looked like ‘pulled pork’ and lives only long enough to know her baby has died and her resilient desire to shield her caring parents from the truth.
Floss (Natalie Sharman) is perhaps one of the harder roles to play. A university student who witnesses a passenger from the plane land in her back garden and then die. Clearly obsessed with the fact that there was a moment of awareness before he died she counts down the number of seconds it would take to die when falling from the height of the plane and bursts out into inappropriate songs that flash through her mind. As a character we feel slightly less sympathy. She has flashbacks of the moment the man appeared in the garden and sees him everywhere she goes.
Perhaps Floss is less credible because of the irony that the man’s son goes to the support group and forms a relationship with her. Therapeutic for them both I found it one of the harder things to believe in. I would have liked some of the delivery slowed down slightly and the words enunciated more clearly, plus a greater variation in the character might have helped me understand and empathise a little more. However, I did feel that Floss had not been written with the same depth as some of the others, making it much more difficult to engage with her feelings.
Tom Thornton, played Graham, a bigoted van driver who uses the events of the accident to turn himself into a hero. The twist at the end is totally unexpected as Thornton’s presentation of the man, who inadvertently becomes famous, had a simple authenticity that made him totally believable.
Clive, the devout Muslim Miguel de Palma) has a quiet sincerity as he tells the story of the abuse he received as a child from his classmates and the fear that he recognised in people’s faces in the wake of terrorist attacks. His explanation of how he turned to religion leads us beautifully up the garden path to believe that he might have been the bomber and it is a relief to discover that he was grieving for his father who had landed in Floss’s garden. De Palma’s sensitive and gentle performance engages the audience from the outset.
It was Ben Grafton as Alex, an arrogant banker whose girlfriend and best friend have died in bizarre circumstances, that holds the whole play together. He comes across as a consummate sceptic, thoroughly reprehensible and yet endearingly honest. But an honesty that constantly masks the real Alex, who has been so hurt that he hides his feelings in crassly inappropriate humour; claiming for example, that the support group is ‘the best place to pull.’ Breaking down the fourth wall from the outset by shaking hands with audience members Grafton plays Alex with a smooth, confidence that leaves the audience swinging from laughter to shock and hoping that his marriage to Izzy might finally help him to come to terms with the world around him.
Thoughtfully directed and beautifully lit this is not an easy play to produce but all credit to cast and director. You leave Putney Arts Theatre feeling that you have truly met with six genuine victims dealing with catastrophe through a strange mixture of self-centredness, sorrow, resilience, unscrupulousness but, ultimately, optimism.
- : admin
- : 30/03/2018