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Photo by Rupert Reid

Outhouse Theatre Co presents, BU21, by Stuart Slade, at the Old 505, Eliza St. Newtown, 9 February – 25 February.

BU21 is a play by British writer, Stuart Slade, first produced in March, 2016, in Bristol and then in London, in February, 2017.

It concerns the downing, the shooting down of a plane, BU21, by a rocket missile, over the suburbs of London – into posh Fulham. We meet six survivors of this act of terrorism who appear on stage and welcome us and directly contact us – no fourth wall here – talking eye-to-eye to us as if this were attending, witnessing, a public therapy meeting/chat. There is a great deal of graphic description of the gruesome physical human damage in the debris of the crash, as we also observe, first hand, the emotional and psychological damage to these survivors. We even experience being verbally abused (the character Alex) for being there, accused of having paid $36 odd dollars to get a ‘dirty little pervo fix of misery-porn’.

This play deals with a terrorist act, set in London, that is fiction and the stories we hear from these six characters are not verbatim recalls but fictionalised constructs written by Mr Slade, who has researched many real-life incidents of terrorism, to contrive this play – a young Romanian woman, Ana (Jessica-Belle Keogh), in a wheel chair, having survived a terrible burning from spilt air-fuel whilst sun baking in a park; a banker, Alex (Skyler Ellis), whose girl friend was incinerated whilst having a trist (fuck) with his best mate – found burnt and fused in death like the survivors of Pompeii, he tells us; a woman, Floss (Whitney Richards), who watches a man (later identified as a cardiologist and member of the Muslim faith) still strapped to his seat die in her front yard, who then, co-incidentallly meets up and begins a romance with this dead man’s son, Clive (Bardiya McKinnon) – who does not identify as Muslim; and Thalissa – ‘Izzy’ (Emily Havea), who learns of her mother’s death from a bouncing plane engine on social media, and feels, initially, not grief but revulsion – who develops a sexual relationship with Alex. There is a sixth character, Graham (Jeremy Waters), who has found himself inventing a fake scenario at the site of the incident that has made him a news sensation/celebrity and, ultimately, rich, and the inspiration for the spiritual renewal of a ‘battered’ nation – he writes a book, to great acclaim.

It was the fabrication of the ‘fake news’ of these stories in this play that derailed me from entering this play and production – after all London has experienced real incidents of terrorism – not just the present forces of terrorist civilian warfare, but back to the Irish Troubles of the 70’s 80’s, the Blitz of World War II, and even further back to the time of the fight for the emancipation of women – so, that there are true stories to be told. Or, are the recent London events too close, still, to serve in a contemporary theatre exercise?

I was, as well, never sure of what the Mr Slade’s intentions were in concocting the fabricated event and stories, and was decidedly uncomfortable with the finger pointing, exclusively, to Islamist terrorism, with an underlining of the Muslim faith, as being this terrorist’s act’s cause. Why not the IRA? Why not contemporary home grown Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist groups? The ‘lone wolf’ fanatic?Discriminatory blame and a championing of Nationalism? I don’t know or want to contemplate, too closely.

I kept thinking of the David Hare play, THE PERMANENT WAY (2003), a play that uses verbatim accounts of recent major British rail disasters to push its premise, argument, or, THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE (2003), by Deborah Brevoort, a play that dramatises another plane outrage over the skies of Scotland spreading its wreckage and bodies over the Lockerbie village. I, also, recalled the Kate Atkinson novel: TIME AFTER TIME, which brought the horrors of ‘warfare’ in the London Blitz vividly to one’s consciousness. BU21 was a ‘fake news’ story that I could not observe or absorb.

And I am tired of watching monologue plays in Sydney – get to the next step of playwriting and dramatise the story, for goodness sake. I am sure a social issue play like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1963), by Ken Kessy, is more impactful because it is dramatised rather than being in a monologue from patient to audience storytelling mode. The dramatising of character interaction form, certainly, is one of the strengths of THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE.

The Director, Erin Taylor, has ‘drilled’ the dialect work of this company, as well as the production’s stylised physical choreography, impressively. The actor’s are finely alert to the shock value of the stories that they are telling, they are brimming with ‘excited’ focused energy. Technically this is a very admirable production. I just did not believe any of the characters had suffered or were suffering shock, grief or, whatever. The work was owned intellectually but had no deep resonances of experiential truth – no convincing internal life. Having watched the films, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and MOONLIGHT, and seen great performances registering a ‘full fathom five’ experience of ‘grief’ – a grief that will never, ever disappear, I doubted the veracity of most of this work. In the small space of the Old 505 Theatre, the acting must be of a cinematic quality of belief and even more especially, obviously, when the style of the work is a deliberately created no barrier, no fourth wall in-yer-face verbatim reality, the performers are in a permanent ‘close-up’. Ana, Alex, Floss, Clive, Thalissa, Graham are meant to be living, breathing survivors of a horrible first-hand tragedy. When Alex moved into the auditorium he simply disappeared passively into it underlining the self conscious ‘theatricalities’ of the play and the production.

As I could not take the ‘fake news’ recall of the event of the play, I was even further removed from the experience by the lack of authentic truth in the acting – it, was shallow in its experiencing, superficially ‘acted’. I could not believe in any of the characters and their recalled experiences.

This is a very curious play. It has received rave reviews in London and maybe one needs to have been a Londoner, watching it in London, a ‘general’ survivor of a history of terrorist events of their city to really appreciate what Mr Slade is getting at. I found it a dispiriting time in the theatre, as valiant as the effort, by all, has been to bring it to Sydney audiences. Design by Tom Bannerman; Lighting, by Christopher Page; Composer and Sound, by Nate Edmondson.

Afterwards, chatting to friends as we wandered back to our transport, I was in the minority in believing that I had just watched for an hour forty-five, without interval, ‘self-indulgent misery-porn’. Some of them vigorously championed the play and the production. It is on until 25 February, still time to catch an Independent Theatre Company at work. See what you think.