Review: 'BU21' at Trafalgar Studios

We’ve all had that feeling. The pit in the bottom of the stomach, the quickening of breath on a crowded tube, the question that floats uninvited into our heads: ‘what if today’s the today, and what if I’m there when it happens?’ Then there are long periods of respite. The feeling lies dormant, and we go about our lives in perfect, ignorant bliss. Stuart Slades’s BU21 confronts what happens when terror crashes into our everyday lives our everyday lives when we least expect it, leaving death and destruction in its wake. 

The play opens at a support group for victims of an attack. An anti air missile has been launched from a warehouse complex in Vauxhall straight into a passenger plane. It crashes in Parsons Green, Fulham, razing Eelbrook Common and all that surrounds it to the ground. 98 people are killed, and thousands injured. If this sounds like all the makings of 100 minutes of theatrical torture, it bizarrely isn’t. The play seeks to show the sheer strength of human resilience, the will to live, and, most remarkably amidst such heavy themes, the compulsion to find comedy in the darkest of moments.

It's a play of harsh truths, its confessional style aided by its use of interlocking monologues. Half of these speeches address the support group, while the other half are directed towards the paying audience alone, and are more confessional still. Florence, a witness, becomes fixated on the 22 seconds it took for the plane to fall out of the sky. The stage and audience alike are plunged into darkness while she counts it out for us. It feels horribly long, far longer than I imagine 22 seconds to last, and in the darkness we force ourselves to imagine screaming, a deafening rush of air, and who and what might fill your mind in those final moments. When the lights come up Florence confesses that she’s only managed to fill 12 of those seconds with her thank yous and her goodbyes, and that she was basically twiddling her thumbs for the rest. It’s macabre, but it breaks the tension. 

Slade by no means shies away from horror – see Izzy’s discovery of her mother’s blasted body via Twitter, or Florence’s description of the ‘corpse juice’ that stains her garden wall - but the success of the play lies in the uncomfortable moments that mitigate terror with laughter. Alex, a banker whose house was destroyed as his girlfriend and best friend cheated on him within it, breaks even further out of his confessional mode, smashing through the fourth wall to mock the audience, challenging our complicity in the wanton display of ‘misery porn’. His incredulity is validated by a quick glance around the room – we’re all unmistakably enjoying ourselves, and the guilt sinks in.

BU21 is a smart, nuanced play that interrogates our consumerist relationship with horror and pain. It makes you laugh and then berates you for it. That the characters are as flawed as we are – laughing at all the wrong moments, plundering each other's stories for their own gains, cashing in on their experiences – creates a bond between us all, and then poses the question: if we're all so alike, couldn’t what's happened to them just as easily happen to us?

Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond