BU21 review: “intensely relevant and brutal”

By Finlay Mead 

The Castle Theatre Company’s production of BU21, a play that charts the lives of six members of a counselling group whose lives are irreversibly changed in the year following a devastating terrorist attack in central London, debuted at Cafédral Durham last night, and was ultimately a creatively and technically accomplished performance, of a far less accomplished piece of writing.

The most striking and impressive thing about BU21, which became clear before the performance had even begun, were the intensely relevant and difficult themes it tackles. The brutal and exhaustingly continuous threat of terrorism is an issue that will doubtlessly come to define this painful part of history in which we find ourselves, and nowhere near enough has yet been done in the arts, and particularly on the stage, to confront the human effects of such traumas. Indeed, this feels even truer in a university city like Durham, which all too often seems to turn to the easier ends theatrical production (and the arts in general) for lighter, more palatable entertainment, than staging new, contemporary theatre, especially theatre dealing with such dark, harrowing, and deeply divisive themes as terror. Director Jennifer Baker deserves immense credit for picking such a play, and seeing through its production.

Indeed, Baker and her entire creative team seem acutely aware of the difficulty of some of the play’s theme; they chose to stage the piece in a manner and venue that is utterly fitting. The venue, Cafedral, does well to help the audience ‘inhabit the same space as the characters’ as Baker hopes. Though at moments the fact that the performance area and all the seating were level did create issues with actors’ visibility, very often the line between stage and audience did doubtlessly feel blurred. Actors would stand at the very front of the performance area, looking out piercingly and unashamedly into the eyes of audience members, gesticulating directly at them, forcing us to share in their experience – the venue was key to making BU21 deeply engaging at its best moments.

Similarly, lighting, sound, and the way Baker’s actors moved in the space, felt fitting for the themes. The use of an unwavering and single bright light, that lit up the expressions and movements of the characters for every second they took the stage, and a similarly minimal use of sound, helped to contribute to the sense that these themes were being respected, and dealt with in an honest and unadulterated manner; it was evident throughout that not allowing these issues to become a device for artistic toying, but rather that the theatrical form was being sculpted to present the subject matter with the integrity and truthfulness that it deserves.

The amount of action taking place on stage at any one time was also minimal, and though this did begin to feel a little monotonous at moments, it overall contributed further to the feeling that this was all being done to give the difficult themes and stories the individual attention and space to organically develop that they needed.

Paradoxically, the only consistently disappointing thing about this production was the play itself. Despite its engagement with pertinent themes, it felt on the whole to be an inconsistent, shallow, and quite lazy piece of dramatic writing. Most of the characters felt two dimensional, all representing, quite shamelessly, very recognisable types in contemporary British society, but doing very little to develop our understandings of such types, or highlight any intricacies or subtleties within the individual characters. The depiction of the only non-white character in the play, Clive, played by Mo Hafeez, felt especially insensitive, and even patronising, at times, as if the writer (Stuart Slade) created him purely as a device into which he could shoehorn every issue and opinion surrounding Islam, Islamophobia, and the perception of non-white families that we see in Britain today. Moreover, because these types are just that, much of their dialogue relies on expletives and shock factor for its excitement, rather than creating any sense of actual drama.

However, having said all that, the cast do an inspiring job of holding such a piece together. The standout performance goes to Adam Evans, playing ‘Graham’, but all performers, including Hafeez, did incredibly well to breathe real life and feeling into the script. Performances were not only consistent throughout the play’s two-hour duration, but were also heartfelt, gripping, and moved seamlessly but convincingly between the plays funniest and darkest moments, of which there were many at both ends of the spectrum.

Indeed, the cast’s ability to be so engaging in a piece composed nearly entirely of long and ranging monologues made it feel that they were just as aware of and committed to the idea, as their director was, that the best way to deal with these complex stories was with authenticity, straightforwardness and unashamed frankness.

Photograph: Peter Watson BU21 is showing 24th and 25th Nov. Book tickets here.

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