A plane explodes over West London. It’s been shot, we are told, by a handheld missile launched somewhere in Vauxhall. The wreckage kills hundreds, injures hundreds more, and reduces most of Fulham to rubble.
Part of the force of Stuart Slade’s courageous, bitterly funny play comes from its plausibility – there is a sense, morbid and unspoken but undeniable, in which we in London are waiting until it’s our turn again. Paris, Brussels and Berlin have suffered in the last 18 months. Doesn’t this sequence feel unfinished?
Of course, any hack can exploit fear. What is most impressive and singular about BU21 is how it strips away the violence and the media noise and gives us people’s lives, in all their glorious mundanity. People still lie to one another, sleep together, fall in and out of love. Life can be boring, even when a plane has crashed into your house.
It’s peculiar to say of a play about terrorism, but BU21 has no discernible politics. We are refused the comforts of sentiment or message. Clive, a teenage Muslim, is designed to check our prejudices, but this is more in keeping with the way the play teases its audience.
He is part of a survivors support group, disparate lives brought viciously into collision. There is Alex, whose girlfriend’s affair with his best friend was revealed by the attack. “They were fused together”, he says, “like Hiroshima”.
There is Izzy, whose mother was killed, and Graham, a white-van man who became a national sensation. There is also Floss, whose garden Clive’s dad fell into. Their stories are told through monologues, which have a lucidity and candour aided by Dan Pick’s minimalist direction.
Alex is the play’s most vivid creation, a tantalisingly unsympathetic character who hides any hint of grief beneath hedonism. He was an arsehole before the tragedy and he remains an arsehole after it, albeit a traumatised one. He is self-indulgent and exploitative, and he makes irredeemable jokes, but Slade seeks to explain behaviour, not redeem it. We aren’t allowed to pity him. Alex is a microcosm of the whole play; our natural reactions are constantly denied, our ordinary orientation towards events like this thwarted by the searing clarity of Slade’s voice.
There are issues; some jokes drag, and there were a few dropped lines in the performance I saw. But it is hard to soften the effects of writing so exacting, so assured. And when it does threaten to become implausible or grating, Alex is on hand to rescue things. “It’s going to get a bit rom-com here”, he tells us, of a minor plotline involving Floss and Clive beginning a relationship; “a bit Four Weddings”. It is a clever trick; we are armed with a reflexive cynicism before the event. It doesn’t become annoying, because Slade has warned us that it might.
Not every story is interesting, nor every character. Izzy has no edges, and Clive is insipid and cloying. But it takes great skill to write boring characters without your material becoming boring. Slade simply traces the effects of the attack, finding great emotion in unlikely places. As Alex says, there isn’t a ‘moral’ to be drawn here. There are only stories, told masterfully.