Grandiose apocalyptic disaster used to feel like the stuff of fiction. Now, 15 years on from the Roland Emmerich nightmare theatre of 9/11, it feels increasingly like we're living in a bad disaster film. As atrocities tick by like clockwork; the carnage begins to seem less like an aberration and more like an inevitability. This is the meat of Stuart Slade's BU21, which explores the psychological impact of a jumbo jet being shot down over London by terrorists.
Primarily inspired by the 2014 MH17 crash over the Ukraine, spliced with 9/11 and 7/7 DNA, the play is set in a support group and follows six young Londoners as they struggle to cope with the magnitude of their experiences. Each has their own horror story: bubbly student Floss witnesses a passenger plummet into her back garden from 4500 feet; office worker Thalissa's mother is bisected by a jet engine; banker Alex's home, best friend and girlfriend are reduced to ash; and Ana, a young Romanian, suffers horrible full-body burns.
Sounds like a downer right? Well, it often is. BU21 is studded with grief, betrayal, misery, deformity and trauma - not quite a recipe for a delightful night out in the theatre. Fortunately (and kinda miraculously), BU21 is serious and moving, yet also absolutely hilarious. The ability to combine comedy and tragedy so deftly is an envious skill for a playwright to possess; one Slade previously deployed so thrillingly in 2014's Cans, which dealt with British celebrity paedophilia.
For my money BU21 succeeds because, above all else, it's honest. Slade's characters are all flawed; most at least somewhat unlikeable before metal, fire and corpses rain into their lives. Experiencing brainmelting tragedy does not miraculously transform people into saints; for example, Alex is an arsehole before the disaster and remains an arsehole after it, albeit one with deep mental scars. Eventually, the character's vanity and propensity for tasteless jokes (Floss can't help but think "It's raining men!" upon seeing a passenger crater into her lawn) function as a way to up the contrast - the presence of light making the darks feel so much darker.
Slade also frequently breaks the fourth wall, at one point berating the audience: "As far as I can tell this is essentially a financial exchange where you've paid money to be entertained by a bunch of human suffering - which - if you think about it, is kind of weird." It's a well he returns to time and again; his characters commenting on the play's dramatic structure; conversing with (and insulting!) the audience; and generally fostering an awkwardly adversarial relationship between audience and performers.
Theoretically, if you're trying to sincerely analyse tragedy the last thing you want to do is futz around with metatextual diversions. Yet, again, Slade pulls it off. What happens is that the fourth wall busting accentuated the honesty of the characters; their asides are tinged of verisimilitude and gradually draw the audience into a conspiratorial frame of mind. Characters and audience end up examining events from precisely the same place, the alignment making the big emotional moments a straight-up slam dunk.
And, of course, we're in Theatre503, so the actors are the best in town. Perhaps it goes without saying at this point, but when it comes to straightforwardly talented performers, this particular theatre rarely (if ever) puts a foot wrong. The entire cast, Alex Forsyth, Roxana Lupu, Clive Keene, Florence Roberts, Graham O'Mara and Thalissa Teixera, are all worthy of the highest praise.
Personal highlights were Graham O'Mara; whose frazzled self confidence gradually erodes over the course of the evening. There's an almost imperceptible dramatic shift in the character, beginning from surefooted forthrightness and ending at faking surefooted forthrightness. Technically there's a fag paper's thickness between the two states, but O'Mara carefully and recognisably distinguishes between them.
Somewhat more unsubtle is Alex Forsyth's preeningly hedonistic banker. With one foot in and one foot out of the fiction he's a kind of ersatz compere. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is making this openly manipulative, misogynist, rapaciously capitalistic sleazebag somehow likeable. God only knows what kind of weird alchemy Forsyth is working with to make us like him (I suspect brute force charisma?) but it works, and the performances provides an acerbic, bristly heart to the piece.
After a streamlined hour and a half we're done, Slade having constructed an equall parts intellectual and emotional thought experiment into how exposure to atrocity affects the soul. Though brief, the ground covered is exhaustive, touching on questions of belief, community, class and politics - all with a touch so light it's easy to miss just how damn rigorous Slade is being. It's a fantastic show and one that deserves to be seen.
So see it!
BU21 is at Theatre503 until 9th April. Tickets here.