“There are some very interesting discussions being had in a way that feels fresh and nuanced”
You know how I know the boxy over-sized blazer trend is going to be something we wildly regret in seasons to come? Because I just watched two girls in full school uniform and I coveted their blazers. No, surely we can all agree that the English school uniform is most certainly not enviable. So something must be terribly wrong.
But Bettina and Asha are hardly concerned with their outfit choices. Sisters in year 10 and year 13 respectively, they often meet outside school on the concrete steps, both avoiding the journey home, though for different reasons. Bettina is being bullied on the bus by a group of nasty school kids. So she dawdles, hoping her sister will at least accompany her if not defend her. Asha, however, has no interest in going home until her mum has left for work at 6:30pm. They’re not talking because Asha submitted an essay critiquing Gandhi, which her mum is taking personally.
There are some very interesting discussions being had in a way that feels fresh and nuanced. The trouble, though, is that they’re presented as a singular conversation when actually there are quite a lot of things going on. First, we’ve got the idea that within a fight for progress, history often only remembers those voices most convenient.
And then there’s the idea that social justice shouldn’t be something you have to earn through good behaviour. And within both main discussions there’s the inescapable subject of race, of microaggressions and this country’s obsession with othering. But they’re not the same argument, and somehow they’re presented as one, all tied together by yet another idea about taking action, being the change you wish to see in the world, if you’ll pardon the Gandhi paraphrasing.
Of course it’s fine to have multiple ideas at play, but maybe not so many when the play is nearly entirely exposition; we never really see anything happen, rather we see the sisters discussing the happenings before and/or after. The subject matter is strong enough that the conversation holds my attention for a solid hour I think, but that’s about as long as my focus can handle without anything actually happening before I start thinking about oversized blazers and their place in the fashion world.
Playing Bettina, Anoushka Chadha’s performance is sweet and vulnerable. She’s excellent at throwing a little lip wobbler, and she shines best when the conversation feels more ad-libbed or verbatim.
Safiyya Ingar’s Asha, however, is in another league. Still so doe-eyed about the world in one sense, and so savvy in another, you feel like you’re really witnessing someone making massive strides in their self-discovery. Bold and hesitant in turns, Ingar is masterful at giving us glimpses of the impressive woman Asha will no doubt become, whilst maintaining an honest and winning naivety.
Debbie Duru’s design mirrors the simplicity of Sonali Bhattacharyya’s script’s set-up. Besides an LED bus screen, and a brief appearance of a very excited hamster it’s pretty much entirely up to Ingar and Chadha, surrounded by a few concrete blocks, to keep us engaged. And if the play were the right length, i.e., half an hour shorter, this would be plenty. The subject matter is meaty enough to do away with flashy production value or heaps of props.
It’s frustrating to see such strong ideas so intelligently expressed and beautifully performed, let down by editing. That said, Two Billion Beats gave me a lot to contemplate on my journey home, and I’d rather that than a slick one-hour with nothing to say.
“Paul Miller’s direction is most assured in the fast-paced, boot-stamping physical moments”
An English sailor, American bombardier and French lieutenant walk into a room. Soon they are sleeping together, playing craps for a Duke’s daughter and arguing for cross-border consensus on that timeless question echoing across dancefloors: what is love. There are plenty of belly laughs, but the unique achievement of this production (a revival from 2019) is in pulling through the real emotional stakes of muddling through relationships in your twenties. Amidst designer Simon Daw’s period design, costumes, hair are characters pleading to know the difference between loving someone and being in love. Sally Rooney eat your heart out.
Philip Labey as the Earl of Harpenden – a wonderfully smarmy Algernon Moncrieff type – is the vehicle for much of this. Where most of writer Terence Rattigan’s characters are comic stocks of military bravado or sheltered naivete, Labey has to run the gamut from diminutive camp drollery to genuine insecurity and back to loving earnestness. He shares a clean sense of comedic timing with Michael Lumsden (his military father in law) and both – with the help of dialect coach Emma Woodvine – have delightfully aristocratic accents down pat.
Conor Glean’s Mid-Atlantic is, unfortunately, not as effective. He has the hulking, rugby-player’s physicality for Lieutenant Mulvaney, but his dialogue proves a stumbling block. He is dealt a tough hand from Rattigan – a script chock-a-block with ‘gee’s ‘darn’s and ‘see ya’s – but Glean’s inflection comes off all too often like Goofy, not an irresistible love-interest. It’s not that When the Sun Shines is exactly a case-study in dramatic realism, but it feels like the accent becomes a distraction: to the audience and Glean himself.
It might not be so obvious if his foil – Jordan Mifsúd’s French lovebird – wasn’t so forcibly funny. His accent isn’t a masterpiece of authenticity either, but he masterfully paints the picture of trembling, white-hot, Parisian passion. It’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance, teasing out snickers from the audience even while he forms the background to dialogue he isn’t a part of.
Most importantly, Mifsúd is a key part of the gathering momentum which drives this production home. Paul Miller’s direction is most assured in the fast-paced, boot-stamping physical moments: when the men pile out Harpenden’s room like a clown car, or Mulvaney and Lady Elizabeth Randall (played with burbling naivete by Rebecca Collingwood) drunkenly dance in the living room. There is a general sense of acceleration, checked only by a few moments of romance; these are managed movingly and it is refreshing to see an Intimacy Director, Yarit Dor, on the list of creatives.
Daw’s set is a simple, effective vehicle for these changes of pace: between a drinks cabinet, sofa and table he leaves enough space for Miller to block actors so that the audience never loses sight in the round. Lighting by Mark Doublebay doesn’t have much to do in a sitting room setting, but he squeezes in a charming window effect, which has the stage pooling with sunlight convincingly.
It’s not exactly the radical subversion of gender promised in the programme notes, but it does achieve something unique for a farce. In the intimate Orange Tree Theatre, Miller’s pulls off meaningful relationships between characters who are not all stereotyped and at the same time delivers the frenetic, off-the-walls energy of West End mainstays like One Man, Two Guvnors. The only draw-back to squeezing that much energy into such a space? John Hudson (a quiet star as Harpenden’s butler) literally bounces off a wall as he runs offstage and misses the curtain call with a bloody nose.