As soon as my foot crossed the threshold of the Avon drama studio I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Our talented cast of six were sitting with their backs to the call, shrouded in darkness, in utter silence. Like ghosts or phantoms they watched me as I took my seat. Some of them with the watery, cowed eyes of frightened children, some with expressions of cold disdain, and some with lips twisted into a sinister grimace.
With the chairs of the audience being arranged into a semi-circle, my mind’s eye immediately conjured up images of an interrogation room, an arena, and a courtroom. Certainly, Rabbit’s Head (in particular, the incredibly talented directorial dynamic duo of Josh Myers and Josh BG) do everything in their power to put their characters on trial, as they confess to the audience their deepest secrets and overwhelming psychological anguish.
The characters are truly at the heart and soul of this piece
The plot of BU21 could be perceived as a relatively simple one. To quote the one sentence synopsis from the production’s Facebook page: “In the aftermath of a fictional terrorist attack, six Londoners share their stories”. Of course, such a concise summation does little to elaborate on the characters (who are truly at the heart and soul of this piece), the style of the play, or any of the brilliant directorial decisions that were taken.
BU21 is primarily comprised of a series of monologues, directly addressed to the audience. Most of these surround the deeply personal experiences of the six characters following the attack and their subsequent journeys towards recovery – or at least, their attempts at recovery. I particularly appreciated the scathing meta-textual interactions with the audience, such as when Floss (played with wonderful comedic timing and heartfelt tenderness by Matilda McCarthy) berates us for expecting a happy ending, before begging for the play (and her suffering) to come to a conclusion: “Why isn’t this f*cking over?”
It was a moment that demonstrated the talents of the directors, the playwright and the actors all working together
Another of these clever meta-textual elements was Clive’s subplot. Clive (portrayed brilliantly by Vikram Grover) serves as a red herring and cunning commentary by the playwright Stuart Slade on how easily the British public (here, the audience) can be manipulated by a media with a divisive agenda. The hints towards Clive’s potential radicalisation required all of Vikram’s talent as an actor, to combine the character’s frustration and youthful ignorance with enough innocence and gentility to make the audience feel like fools when he is revealed not to be the terrorist.
This guilt is rammed home by Alex (played with a difficult mixture of sardonic arrogance and emotional vulnerability by Louis Vaughan) directly mocking the audience for being deceived by the playwright; “who knew theatre audiences were so BNP”. It was a moment that demonstrated the talents of the directors, the playwright, and the actors -all working together to make one succinct statement towards the audience.
Her final monologue is beautifully harrowing, and even more beautifully performed
The use of comedy in the piece is a double-edged sword. Certain moments are effective and satirical, such as the decision to play the British national anthem over Graham’s jingoistic speech “against evil people who do evil sh*t”. But there are times, especially in the play’s opening, when this humour (combined with what I felt to be excessive swearing) dilutes the impact of the earliest descriptions of the attack. Although, that is more to do with the original script than the skill of the performers.
Indeed, the reason I remembered to list this admittedly minor complaint was because of its contrast with some truly heart-wrenching performances. Olivia Kershaw (playing Izzy) delivers perhaps the most harrowing account of the initial attack. It is her emotional trauma from having lost her mother which showcases the powerful indictment of our exploitative media. Another unbelievably powerful performance came from Bethan Hughes (playing Anna), a woman who is left scarred and disabled by the attack. Her final monologue is beautifully harrowing, and even more beautifully performed.
This character was played with overwhelming bombastic energy
Of course, it would be a crime to end this review without mentioning the performance of Tom Fletcher, who plays the aforementioned, racist Graham – the character that provides the warning underlying this piece, that I mention in the headline. This character was played with overwhelming bombastic energy by Fletcher, whose contorted face was practically glowing with a thin veil of furious sweat as we observed his repugnant character’s exploitative journey.
Overall, this was a thoroughly harrowing, yet fantastic, production by Rabbit’s Head. Despite their warning regarding disturbing themes, I cannot wait to see what they bring to the table next time.