Flight BU21 is a Boeing 747 route between Heathrow and New York. In Stuart Slade’s six-hander, transferred to Trafalgar Studios after premiering at Theatre503 last Spring, a BU21 plane is hit by an anti-aircraft missile on its approach over West London, falling from the sky onto the New King’s Road, killing 500 people and injuring thousands. It is our very own MH17. The bloody horror of Aleppo crash-landed in leafy Fulham.
Slade’s play constructs a composite picture of London’s response to such an attack in monologue form, interweaving the tragic stories of six individuals who witnessed, were injured in, or were bereaved by it. Like the movie Crash, but less uber-hyped, gun-toting LA street-warriors, and more debris-strewn artisanal West London bakeries. Dan Pick’s production is gallingly graphic, desperately bleak, heartrendingly sad and quite, quite hilarious. Yep, that’s right. Amongst the trauma and suffering lurks an awful lot of humour.
The six characters are all regulars at a therapy group. There’s Izzy (Isabella Laughland), a young PR professional, whose mother was torn in half by a jet engine bouncing towards Parsons Green. There’s Floss (Florence Roberts), a student haunted by the memory of a safely seat-belted passenger landing in her back garden and dying before her eyes. There’s Ana (Roxana Lupu), a Romanian waitress, wheel-chair bound after severe burns robbed her the use of her legs. There’s Alex (Alexander Forsyth), a coarse, laddish city-boy who’s lost a flat and a cheating girlfriend. There’s Clive (Clive Keene), a young Muslim grieving the death of his estranged father. And there’s Graham (Graham O’Mara), an overly-sincere Scouser whose vox-pop eye-witness interview has stoked the fires of nationalism.
Each character reacts to the attack in different ways – Ana retreats into herself, Alex snorts copious amounts of coke – and each character’s journey in understanding their trauma is different – Clive finds love, Alex still just snorts copious amounts of coke. But Slade – who has experience making documentaries about disaster relief – does not provide a kitsch, predictable story of redemption. His play is more mature than that, instead contemplating the political currency, the psychological scarring, and the uneasy societal tension engendered by terrorism.
Sure, part of the piece’s appeal is in the morbid fascination it engenders. There’s no shame in admitting that. Death is interesting. Gruesome death even more so. Planes are interesting. Big planes dropping out of the sky over populous cities are even more so. But once this initial sensationalism subsides, Slade repeatedly throws up juicy chunks of sociological meat to chew on. The best of these come from Forsyth’s boisterous, brazen, potty-mouthed Alex, who frequently confronts the audience, challenging their assumptions and exposing their prejudices with scathingly acute wit.
Pick’s production is sleek and stripped-back, exactly the kind of thing Trafalgar Studios 2 is perfect for. Alex Doidge-Green’s set is little more than a few jauntily angled neon lights and a set of six classroom chairs, but it provides enough flexibility for Pick’s stylishly symmetrical direction and a suitably blank canvas for Slade’s fruitier passages to emphatically impact. Aside from the Forsyth’s brutally scabrous Alex, Roberts’ relentlessly upper middle-class Floss and O’Mara’s blokey Graham impress most, the latter disguising the thrill of his newfound celebrity behind a transparent sincerity.
If BU21 is a play with a point, and not just a compelling, terrifying thought-experiment, then I think Slade’s message lies in his liberal use of blacker-than-black humour. Mass trauma can do terrible, terrible things to people’s mental fortitude, and terrorism’s goal is to frighten damaged souls into anger and hate. Not everyone survives the tsunami of grief and pain that attacks like Nice, Istanbul, Paris and Orlando cause; there is no promise of redemption, no insurance of resilience and no guarantee of solidarity beyond a glib hash-tag or filtered profile picture. But as long as we can smile, we can survive, Slade suggests. As long as we have laughter, we have life.
BU21 is on at Trafalgar Studios until 26th January 2017. Click here for more details.