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BU21 review at Theatre503, London – ‘intelligent, questioning and very funny’

A scene from BU21 at Theatre503. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge A scene from BU21 at Theatre503. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

Stuart Slade is a playwright with the ability to reach elbow-deep into the darkest of pits and pull out the pink, wriggling strings of life. To find humour in the most unlikely places. He did it in Cans, his 2014 play, also staged at Theatre503, which plucked a grubby story from the headlines – the fallout from Operation Yewtree – and made from it something intimate, funny and tender. He does the same thing here, though the gamble he takes is even bigger.

BU21 takes terrorism as its subject matter. A plane has been shot down by an anti-aircraft missile, but not over some faraway foreign field, rather an affluent part of West London – hundreds of people are dead.

Slade’s play, set at a survivors group, is composed of six interwoven monologues: one woman has lost her mother, another has suffered life-derailing injuries, another is haunted by the face of the man she watched die. It’s a play of trauma and emotional wreckage, it’s about the shape of terrorism now but it also recalls the dazed days after 7/7; it’s also about class and the way the media processes tragedy. It borrows some of the swagger of Fight Club and the appalling imagery of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love but it does so with purpose and intelligence. And it does so while making jokes about owl shit. It’s a very funny play, but it’s also self-questioning (almost too much so at times) – asking its audience what it hopes to gain from hearing stories like these?

The whole thing is directed with assurance by Dan Pick on a spare, black set, queasily strip-lit by Christopher Nairne, and delivered with emotional nuance and wit by an ensemble cast including Graham O’Mara – so brilliant in Cans – as a lorry driver who gets swept up in the storm, and Alex Forsyth, as a spectacularly amoral, fourth wall-breaking banker, whose worldview remains wonderfully unshaken.

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Intelligent, complex, questioning, and very funny play about emotional wreckage in the aftermath of an act of terrorism