One of the greatest thrills of seeking out new work is the topicality of it, but few playwrights would dare to be as up-to-the-minute as Stuart Slade. BU52 is set within touching distance of the present, 22/7/2016 to be exact. On this date in the disquietingly close future, Passenger jet BU52 is shot from the sky by an anti aircraft missile and comes to land in Fulham, killing hundreds, injuring thousands and changing the lives of Londoners, and the world, forever.
The play concerns six young survivors who watch the devastation unfold from the ground. Slade, as well as the rest of us, are well aware that although it is set 4 months from now, the reality is events such as this could take place at “any moment”. The impending threat of Terrorism is all around us, and indeed the events in Brussels have unfolded in the course of the run, but yet we barely talk about it. The play charts the unfolding of the hypothetical attack through the stories of the young people in the format of a discussion group and in doing so opens up much wider questions about our response to such events as a whole society. It probes unmentionable truths, examines our prejudices and refreshingly (and unexpectedly) allows us to laugh at ourselves.
‘Alex’, who takes on the role of the 4th wall smashing narrator, asks us straight up what we think we have paid for. Have we paid £15 to be “entertained by other people’s misery?” He promises us a “circle jerk of misery porn” to come, but this is not what we witness. Some of the observations are bleak and desperately sad, and at times it feels like walking through a blow-by-blow account of the stages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Slade has quite clearly done his research in this area and done it well) but as each character gradually sheds light on what they have gained, as they come to terms with what they have lost, the overall narrative is not as harrowing as the subject matter might suggest. Instead, the plays’s focus on their very honest responses (Thalissa’s initial “disgust”, Floss’s “guilty” laughter, Alex’s sardonic remarks, Ana’s depression) are beautifully, profoundly human and all the more life affirming for it.
The play also explores the implications of the attack on those outside the close circle of the directly affected. ‘Graham’, a lorry driver, takes it upon himself to be the voice of the survivors in the coverage of the attack by the World press, after giving an off the cuff interview to the BBC. It is in his formal speech to the camera, his face solemn and contained, his words emotive and carefully chosen yet so far removed from the stories we have just witnessed, that we truly realise how little into the real worlds’ of those directly affected we are able to see. Graham seems reassured by London standing “shoulder to shoulder”, but goes on to doubt his own rhetoric when he observes that the men who shot down the plane were Londoners, too. As a society we are building a narrative around these horrific occurrences, marked out in ‘candle lit vigils’ and yearly memorial services, but on a personal level we still won’t know how it feels, and how we will cope, until it happens to us for real. “Nothing prepares you” Thalissa warns us, fiercely.
It’s plays like this one that remind audiences that theatre isn’t just a night’s entertainment, it’s a forum for words, thoughts and discussions, for challenging opinions or forming them afresh. BU52 is up close and personal, it’s here and now, it reminds us that the future we fear is not going away, so we might as well face up and talk about it.