Stuart Slade's second play follows six people in the aftermath of a terrorist attack
The passenger plane exploded over Battersea Bridge. Downed by a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher, it span through the air, clipping the trees over the heads of the sunbathers on Parsons Green, and obliterating the junction just before Wandsworth Bridge Road. Out of a massive fireball, the engine bounced down the New Kings Road towards Putney.
BU21 imagines a major terrorist incident in London, four months from now. Six survivors tell their stories, each recounting events they witnessed on the day in graphic detail and the effects on their lives as part of a support group. Thalissa lost her mother; Alex, a hedge funder, his cheating girlfriend. Floss was making a sandwich when a man landed - "wee-bop" - in her back garden, still strapped into his seat, still momentarily alive. White van man Graham wound up a national hero.
Stuart Slade's second play is deeply disturbing from the start. The images it spins are pin-sharp: flesh shredded "like pulled pork," lovers fused together in the inferno, skin stuck to a Mickey Mouse towel. They're so thoroughly threaded into our lives, into the London we inhabit unthinkingly, that it's impossible to remain detached. It's not just the geography, but the psychology too - the details we fixate on, like blue skies and black stains; the ways we behave, checking Twitter for info, raving nonsensically into television cameras. It's hauntingly credible, shudderingly so - not least because it feels so familiar. Individual moments recall real-life events: 9/11 and 7/7 and MH17. All the time you're thinking: Can you do this? Can you just make up a major terrorist incident?
Slade's way out ahead, though. His play warps out of shape, refusing to play by the usual rules of reverence. One character addresses us directly with accusations of voyeurism. Another counts out the seconds it takes to fall from cruising altitude. A teenage Muslim, Clive, is there just to put our prejudices to the test. It's thrillingly theatrical, all before the familiar tone of horrified respect twists into pitch-black humour and nihilism. When did you ever see a terror-plot rom-com? BU21 dares you to laugh - because if you can't laugh, right, the terrorists have won. Haven't they? Or does that very laughter - the same cold-hearted cynicism that's hard-wired into these young Londoners - make us all utterly contemptuous?
The characters' youth is crucial. This is a generation that has grown up with terrorism. They've waited all their lives for this, conditioned to see the danger on their doorstep. "The whole thing was just so unreal," Thalissa gawps - "like being in a film."
Slade's prodding at those very stories, the way they shape our subconscious. That's the point of terrorism, after all - that it gets into our heads, that it becomes a fact of life. If terrorism is part of life, though, life must be part of terrorism - in all its messy contradictions. People still fall in love, still fuck each other over. Slade somehow celebrates that - challenging the trad news narrative, history's singularity, for something more plural and plausible.
Dan Pick's minimalist production treads that tightrope carefully, with Christopher Nairne's strip-lighting flickering queasily away. There's are some strong performances: Alex Forsyth's despicable banker, heartless but hurting; Thalissa Teixeira's straightforward Sloane; Graham O'Mara's sympathetic islamophobe.
What a daring feat of writing this is - a theatrical joyride that gives formal logic the finger. It's easy to overlook the occasional immaturity for a piece that captures the internal conflict of global terror: the sense that it was somehow deserved, the pull to be part of something, the impulse to laugh and to cry. Imagine Simon Stephens' Pornography, which traces the lives of Londoners pre- and post- 7/7, stitched together with Smack the Pony, Brasseye, JG Ballard and United 93. I've not been so excited by a new voice since Alistair McDowall's debut Brilliant Adventures. Go.
BU21 ran at Theatre503 in April 2016. It has now transferred to Trafalgar Studios where it runs until 18 February 2017.