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B review at London’s Royal Court – ‘sharp comedy-drama about violent protest in Chile’

Paul Kaye in B at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Helen Murray Paul Kaye in B at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Helen Murray
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B is for Birthday. It’s also for Bomb. In this grotesque, darkly funny new play by Chilean writer Guillermo Calderon, fledgling activist Marcela is turning 19, and she’s throwing a party of sorts. The only guests are two cack-handed fellow revolutionaries; the bomb is gift-wrapped.

But the B word must never be spoken out loud, so rather than ‘bomb’, these jittery anarchists say ‘cheese’. Or is the correct codeword ‘cow’? No one’s sure and, with an over-friendly neighbour popping in with cake and candles, hair-trigger tempers flare in a safe house that could hardly be more dangerous.

B, directed by Sam Pritchard, is a comedy with serrated teeth, spitting out shrapnel shards of horror and absurdity. It confronts a history of violent protest in Chile that stretches back to resistance to the Pinochet regime, which itself perpetrated acts of state-sponsored terrorism, and persists with today’s encapuchados, or ‘the hooded ones’, a disparate group whose activities range from graffiti to deadly bombings.

Calderon examines the explosive clash of values when an older activist, Jose Miguel (Paul Kaye), a seasoned killer steeped in Marxist theory, teams up with Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal), who favour noisy, dramatic, but bloodless tactics. What they share is an unfocused anger, and the hope that this action might give their lives purpose.

In William Gregory’s translation, the dialogue is terse, scattergun, interrupted by monologues that are essentially prolonged growls of rage and howls of anguish. These terrorists furiously distance themselves from al-Qaeda zombies, while struggling to define their aims. Yet a wider picture stealthily emerges of political surveillance, young lives destroyed or wasted, and minority voices stifled.

The writing has a dash of Pinter, Chris Morris’ Four Lions and even Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs with its menace, its blend of the comic, grisly and grotesque, and its confused, conflicting deceptions.

On Chloe Lamford’s alarmingly flimsy set of plywood and scaffolding, the activists look ridiculous in their homemade knotted T-shirt hoods, particularly Kaye’s twitchy Miguel, who accessorises his with impenetrable dark glasses. And it sounds silly when he compels a squeamish Marcela to shit into the can containing the “cow”. But his explanation (the excrement will ensure that wounds from the nail bomb become infected) is chilling. Even the apparently benevolent neighbour, Carmen (gimlet-eyed Sarah Niles) has an overbearing, intrusive creepiness that makes the skin prickle.

For all that, neither the play nor Pritchard’s fleet, quicksilver production achieves maximum impact. Calderon never unmasks his characters long enough for us to connect with them fully, and more historical context would lend greater heft. Still, it’s a startling, stylish and suspenseful piece, even if it leaves you more dazed and rattled than enlightened.

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Swift, sharp comedy-drama about the rage and confusion behind violent protest in Chile