Review: Our Big Love Story at The Hope Theatre

In June 2017, Theresa May concluded her response to the UK’s third terrorist attack in as many months with these defiant words: “We must come together, we must pull together, and united we will take on and defeat our enemies.”

The call for unity and defiance is a common refrain at times like these, and rightly so; faced with such mindless horror and violence, it’s important that we look out for each other, and of course we should present a united front against those who want to harm us. But what happens when that determination to protect our way of life at all costs goes a step too far?

In Our Big Love Story, Stephanie Silver explores the idea of radicalisation of teenagers – only not, as one might expect, that of young Muslims. Instead it’s a young white girl, Destiny (Holly Ashman), who’s drawn in by the racist rhetoric of her dad’s EDL group following the July 7 bombings in 2005. Her anger at the devastation and loss of life is both understandable and relatable, but it’s also wildly misplaced – having finally convinced herself that her classmate and secret crush Anjum (Naina Kohli) isn’t a terrorist because she’s not a Muslim, she moves on to a new and equally innocent target, with horrifying consequences.

Though the story takes place on and immediately after the 2005 attack, it could just as easily be happening today, at a time when the threat of terror attacks remains high, and far right groups in the UK and overseas gain ever more ground, both socially and politically. That said, July 7 feels like a particularly significant landmark to choose: the first example of radical Islamist terror most of us – and certainly the four teenage characters in the play – can remember on home soil, and the moment at which attitudes towards Muslims began to shift rapidly in an uncomfortable direction.

The play begins as two separate love stories, neither of which has any obvious connection to terrorism; it’s not until it’s almost over that all the threads finally link together. While Destiny and Anjum discuss their mutual attraction and Destiny worries what her dad will think, Katie (Emelia Marshall Lovsey) and Jack (Alex Britt) are more coy about their own budding romance, recalling with some embarrassment their parents’ attempts to educate them on the birds and bees. It’s instantly clear that although they’re on the brink of adulthood, these young people are still of an age where their parents have an influence on them – a fact that will take on darker significance as the play goes on.

Into the midst of all this youthful exuberance steps The Teacher (Osman Baig), a religious Muslim man injured in the attack, with an account that’s harrowing in its graphic detail. He’s traumatised by what he saw that day, but even more so by not knowing the fate of a fellow passenger and his little girl, and over the course of the play describes how this trauma affected his life in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time, he gives us an insight into the judgment and suspicion faced by Muslims in the wake of this and other attacks – a judgment he eventually begins to turn on himself as his precious faith slips away.

The Teacher’s appearances slow the tempo of Calum Robshaw’s otherwise fast-paced production, with Osman Baig’s direct and personal delivery ensuring that we hang on his every word. The play’s conclusion brings all five characters together and is performed with genuine and heartfelt emotion by the young cast, but it’s reassuring to see that while in some ways their lives have been irrevocably changed, we can still catch glimpses of those giddy teenagers we met earlier, still falling in love and convinced they can conquer the world.

I saw an extract from the opening of Our Big Love Story at an Actor Awareness scratch night last year, and was intrigued by the multiple different themes that the play seemed to be dealing with: love, sex, religion, racism, porn… It’s satisfying therefore to see how the full-length play successfully weaves these themes together, forming a coherent narrative that’s thought-provoking, moving and, at times, quite unsettling. There’s still a lot going on, and the play could be longer to allow it to delve into each issue in more depth – but as it stands, the story already provides more than enough food for thought to keep us going for quite some time.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: BU21 at Trafalgar Studio Two

Human beings tend to have a strange fascination with tragedy. Everyone has a “where I was on 9/11” story, for instance, even though in 99% of cases it makes absolutely no difference to anyone but us where we were when the Twin Towers were hit. And we often find ourselves morbidly gripped by all the details – whether that means slowing down to peer at the car crash on the other side of the road, or following minute-by-minute updates from the BBC on the latest terrorist attack.

I like to think this is not because we’re all awful people, but because we have no other way to process the unspeakable horror of what’s happening. There can’t be many of us who haven’t imagined at least once over the last few months and years the very real possibility of getting caught up in a major catastrophe – whether terrorist or accidental – but nobody ever really thinks it’ll happen to them, or knows how they’d react if it did.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

This is the inspiration for Stuart Slade’s excellent and thought-provoking BU21, which brings together six young Londoners affected in different ways when a fictional terrorist attack brings a plane crashing to the ground in Fulham, a few months from now. Each has their own story to tell: Ana (Roxana Lupu), horribly burnt and wheelchair-bound after the plane smashed into the park where she was sunbathing; Izzy (Isabella Laughland), who found out her mum was dead through a photo on Twitter; Alex (Alexander Forsyth), whose girlfriend and best friend were killed while in bed together; Graham (Graham O’Mara), an eyewitness who finds himself an accidental celebrity; Floss (Florence Roberts), traumatised by the sight of a man in a plane seat dying in her back garden; and Clive (Clive Keene), a young Muslim looking for answers in the wake of the crash. The fact that each of the actors is, in a way, playing an alternate version of themselves lends the play an unsettling authenticity, strengthened by the fact that the attack hasn’t yet taken place – but still could.

Dan Pick’s production is set in the soulless room where the six meet for their PTSD support group, illuminated by flickering strip lights, and furnished with a few plastic chairs and a metal trolley bearing the obligatory plate of biscuits that nobody ever eats. Yet despite a set-up that should suggest human connection, the majority of the play consists of monologues, with each character speaking into a void while the others deliberately look away.

Each account is horrifically detailed and brutally honest; there’s no glamour here, no tragic heroes, no political correctness or bold display of unity in the face of adversity – there’s just a bloody mess, and a bunch of people trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. The characters are not all nice people, they don’t all get a happy ending, and it’s difficult to tell how much support any of them are actually giving or getting as a result of talking things through. In the end, each of them copes in their own way, whether that means milking it or avoiding it, getting on with life or unable to move, seeking comfort or shutting people out.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Slade doesn’t offer judgment or try and tell us who’s right or wrong – if anything, the spotlight is turned instead on our own attitudes. There’s the obvious one, of course, although I can’t imagine many people honestly believed Clive the Muslim would turn out to be a terrorist. But there are also moments that catch us off guard, like when Alex the charming but obnoxious banker suddenly breaks the fourth wall and challenges our decision to exploit his misery for our entertainment. Or every time we laugh – which happens a lot more than you’d expect – always with the uncomfortable sensation that we’re being disrespectful.

BU21 may deal with a terrorist attack, but it’s not a political play; we never really find out who the perpetrators were, and nor does it matter. Stuart Slade’s focus is on the psychology of human beings in a moment of crisis, and while we may not leave the theatre knowing how to survive a plane crash, we might just find we’ve learnt a little something about ourselves.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉