On 22 July 2017, an anti-aircraft missile, fired by a terrorist, brought down a Boeing 747, Flight BU21 from New York, as it was descending towards Heathrow Airport. The highly populated area devastated was Fulham, just across the river from Theatre 503 where Stuart Slade’s darkly comical play, based on the aftermath of these events, was first seen. Six characters, known by the first names of the actors who play them, relate their individual experiences in monologue form; they are the witnesses, the bereaved, the maimed and we seem set for an evening that will be harrowing, reverential and boring until Slade begins to twist and overturn the stories, provoke and challenge the audience and lay bare the hypocrisy and fabrications that have become a familiar part of these all too frequent atrocities.
It takes deft touches to be able to mock such delicate subject matter and they come from Slade’s sharp writing, Dan Pick’s fluid direction and six spot-on performances. Mocker-in-chief is Alex (Alexander Forsyth), a slick, cynical, sarcastic banker who lost his girlfriend and his best friend, both sharing a bed when the plane crashed, but we soon learn that he would have been likely to have played the same game as the deceased pair. Izzy (Isabella Laughland) wonders why, when the plane engine came hurtling down her street, it picked out only one victim – her mother – and Ana (Roxana Lupu) contemplates suicide to escape her horrific injuries until realising that she is too strong to go through with it. Student Floss (Florence Roberts) cannot clear her mind of the face of the ejected passenger who landed in her back garden and died seconds later.
Slade’s feel for black, slightly absurdist comedy and irony is evident throughout. He captures the minutiae of everyday life and makes astute observations. He tells us that London is a city made up of groups who hate each other – north v south, rich v poor, etc – and he questions whether the media that quickly labels the events as “BU21” and “22/7” might have cared more if Fulham had been a poor area. The play also looks at the sinister side of the attack; Clive (Clive Keene), son of a secular Asian family, was nicknamed “Osama Bin Clive” at school and finds himself being gradually drawn to Islam and, from there, towards sympathising with extremists; Graham (Graham O’Mara), is a proud Londoner in whom the attacks spur Islamaphobia, which is moderated when he finds media celebrity as a witness to the devastation.
The play evolves from monologue format when the characters interact in the melting pot of a mental health support group and, confounding our prejudices and expectations Slade shows is that all is not as it first seems or as the media would lead us to believe. A year later, memorial services are attended by the good and the great who gush out their glib platitudes and mask further the reality of what actually happened. This is a stimulating work that defies orthodoxy and is fully deserving of the opportunity that it is getting to reach a wider audience.
Performance date: 11 January 2017
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge