Though it may be intimate, nestled in an attic above an Islington pub, The Hope Theatre is not afraid of putting on ambitious productions. Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear, an imaginative, ensemble-fed portrayal of the life of Alan Turing, still remains on the lips of many a theatre enthusiast after it was performed at the venue in 2015. Earlier this year, Emily Carding brought a one-woman Richard III to the space, inviting a small circle of audience members to help her stage Shakespearean romances and feuds, battles and betrayals.
In Our Big Love Story, the scope is similarly wide, but the location is specific: this is a Londoner’s play, based on the 7/7 terror attack on a Circle Line tube travelling between Liverpool Street and Aldgate. Calum Robshaw’s production rings with found sound extracted from this city – recorded clips of TfL announcements, emergency sirens and trains hurtling along underground.
Stephanie Silver’s script is similarly contained within the M25. Until a bomb generates divisions between races and religions, attitudes are progressive in a way in that is decidedly urban: the language pulses with local slang and Nokia 3310 abbreviations, parents talk with their teenagers about porn, and enamoured young women kiss openly in front of their friends.
We meet a group of teenagers who are all, in different ways, impacted by the explosion. Robshaw brings out this period of emotional turbulence with measured direction that mirrors the young people’s physical naivety and the burgeoning Islamophobia that develops following the event. These narratives rage side-by-side most furiously in the relationship between a White Londoner and South Asian Sikh.
Before the attack, in a time of relative innocence, Holly Ashman’s tremendously spirited Destiny is crudely romantic as she expresses her affection for Anjum (Naina Kohli). She’s “‘like one of those Greek goddesses with funny names,” she blurts aggressively, her spat-out words dripping with poetic promise. The end of this sentence has a double-pronged brilliance, reinforcing Destiny’s unfiltered expression, and her uncomplicated vision of Anjum as Other. “Not all Pakis are bad,” reasons Destiny, unreasonably, in a balanced blend of good intentions and poor expression.
Post-7/7, Anjum makes troubling attempts to win back the right kind of attention, and to get back onto Destiny’s guest list. She furiously washes her skin in the shower “until she looks at me again”, and opts for a briefcase over a backpack, all so the object of her affection will see her again. There’s a certain devastation in how she goes about convincing Destiny that she’s not a Muslim, as readily as she goes to prove to her that she’s not a terrorist.
If there’s pessimism here, an antidote can be found in how the young people actively grapple with meaning until more fruitful understandings are reached. There’s a spirited lightness to such conversations, seen as adorable dweeb Katie (Emelia Marshall Lovsey) attempts to swerve sexual objectification as she pursues her classmate Jack, mis-applying her mother’s advice and comparing herself to an exclusive restaurant: “I’m not a fast food takeaway. I’m more The Ivy.” The teens talk about the “right reasons” for having sex and make faltering attempts at close contact, clawing each other’s shoulders in an attempt to reconcile mimicked actions with the sensuality they crave.
As The Teacher, a Muslim man who survived the bomb that killed Jack’s father, Osman Baig’s delivery is bright and animated. He recites chanted prayers that increase in intensity, filling the small space. Throwing his focus around the audience, making pointed eye contact and persuasively relating his character’s experience, he’s sometimes exasperated, sometimes defensive, sometimes humorous, and always engaging. For all his expression, though, his character teeters on the two-dimensional and details in The Teacher’s life, from his reading material – “Dan Brown! Classic!” – to his vocation are as banal and broadly-drawn as the character’s impersonal name.
Jack finds the apparent injustice of The Teacher’s survival maddening, and uses this as his motivation for increasingly invasive acts of violence – and when the incited teens “stand together” to punish him for another’s extremism, his easy forgiveness is dehumanising. The script, too, isn’t quite on The Teacher’s side; with all its coincidences and overlaps, it’s too neatly resolved and smoothly varnished to generate a wider sense of resolution. Bearing raw, graphic language and pristinely tied-off endings, the work swings awkwardly between reportage and allegory, with the layered coincidences working to weigh out a burden of proof that was never The Teacher’s to bear.
In Our Big Love Story, lust is violent and consuming, and so too is hatred – but while the play makes a point about the susceptibility of its young characters, the script is far too sympathetic to their crimes. The Teacher’s role is sacrificial, and his identity conceptual; he exists less as an individual and more, as his name suggests, as a tool to develop the other characters. So while the delivery is refreshing and the outcome superficially optimistic, the implications are problematic. The Teacher isn’t exonerated because of his innocence; he is exonerated because he humbly accepts and finds solace in a punishment he didn’t deserve.
Our Big Love Story is at The Hope Theatre until April 7th. For more details, click here.