BU21 Preview: ‘Honest and real’

By Harry Twining

“You hear in the news pretty much every day now that there’s been another terrorist attack” director Jennifer Baker notes when talking of the hyper-relevance of BU21 to today’s audience. “It’s so commonplace, you don’t really think about it anymore”.

It is this sense of normality and the everyday which sits at the core of the play as one of its most disturbing themes in a story of the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on London. The production goes on to follow how six survivors deal (or don’t) with their circumstances in vastly different and complex ways. Despite its attack being fictional, the potential reality of BU21 is made all the more prominent by its verbatim-style of dialogue, based upon the testimonies of those who have survived actual terrorist attacks such as 7/7 and 9/11.

With this in mind, one can easily see the effectiveness of staging the production in the Cafédral Café, such a comforting setting to house such graphic imagery and again drive home the terrifying potential of an attack on home soil. “We want to make it feel like the audience are actually a part of (the play)” Baker says. As a fair chunk of BU21 takes part in a survivor’s support group, she wants them to feel as if they are simply “sitting there, having a chat” with the characters, rather than watching a show, creating an incredibly immersive and “intimate” atmosphere.

The cast and crew all agree that an integral part of this realism is its dark humour, which Baker feels sometimes “walks the line” of being offensive. However, she argues it plays an important role in highlighting the story’s darker aspects to avoid an unending (and unrealistic) onslaught of misery. “Especially with the themes being suffering and moving on, it’s just so real to have the humour with that” assistant director Holly Orchard adds.

Actor Mo Hafeez (who plays the sole Muslim character of Clive) compares the laughs to how comedians finally began joking about 9/11 and so talk past the taboo. As Florence Petrie (who plays a woman whose mother is killed in the attack) further points out, “How else do you describe such a tragedy?… putting it into such a blunt picture, which is sometimes laughable, is the only way it can be translated.”

When it comes to portraying a survivor, the actors all agree on the difficulty of approaching such a mindset, yet by no means seem swayed by the challenge. “No one knows how you would react in that situation”, says actor Catherine Wright of her character Ana. She notes that it helps Ana is “not far from her anyway”, making it easier to empathise and therefore create a more relatable character.

This has been built upon by some impressively rigorous one on one sessions between Baker and the cast to develop these very real people, within whom the audience could easily recognise elements of themselves, again underlining the severe relatability of the production. “There is something in every single person that you can connect with” Baker notes, despite many “flaws”.

“There is something in every single person that you can connect with”

It is these flaws which provide another fascinating facet to the production, with the portrayal of the varied ways with which different people deal with their grief, healthily or otherwise. “Every character handles their situation very differently”, actor Jake Hathaway says. “The way Alex (Hathaway’s character) deals with his grief is very unhealthy” he continues, saying Alex is simply “making the best of it” whilst attempting to hit on girls as a forced attendee of the support group, rather than working through his experience.

Yet it is these unhealthy flaws of the survivors which make them so engrossing in what Hafeez calls “a very honest” play which “doesn’t hold anything back” whilst covering a “very wide breath” of themes and issues, from racial stereotypes and prejudice to grief and opportunism in the face of disaster. “[BU21] is about something which could happen to any of us any day” Baker concludes simply.

With its “atmospheric and intimate environment”, and scarily recognisable descriptions and themes, the audience themselves will no doubt be absorbed into the play, becoming truly involved rather than simply observing actors on a stage. Without a doubt, this is shaping up to be a thought-provoking and important production, and I for one cannot wait to experience for myself.

Potential audience members should be made aware that the play contains graphic descriptions of the aftermath of a terror attack and frequent strong language. The director suggests an age rating of 12+.

Castle Theatre Company presents ‘BU21’, by arrangement with Nick Hern Books, 23rd-25th November 8pm. Buy tickets here.

Photograph credits: Castle Theatre Company production team

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