“The performances are uniformly magnificent: honest and brutal. Yet it stops just short of drawing us in emotionally”
Towards the end of Naomi Wallace’s “The Breach”, the joint protagonist, Jude, is imagining a version of the past that didn’t happen, but could have. It takes a while to get there but the scene encapsulates both the power and impotence of hindsight. The characters wrestle with regret, bereavement and guilt, but more so with the question of whether that could have been avoided had they acted differently.
The play jumps between 1977 and 1991, initially as two very different worlds but gradually they overlap and the two separate decades bear witness to each other. Set against a completely bare stage there is little to differentiate the two ages. Different actors play the younger and older versions of the characters. Between the scenes a stark line of white light sweeps the stage, brushing them away like skittles to replace them with their counterparts.
We begin in the seventies, in small town America, a time of restlessness, turbulence, political scandal and a questioning of traditional authority (there are extensive, weighty articles in the programme notes depicting the profound effects on the American youth of the Vietnam War and ‘Neoliberalism’ – although not touched upon at all in the script). Seventeen-year-old Jude (Shannon Tarbet) has taken it upon herself to protect her younger brother Acton (Stanley Morgan). They spend their days in the basement of their modest home creating their own world. Frayne (Charlie Beck) and Hoke (Alfie Jones) gate-crash this world – not so much friends of Acton but emotional racketeers. Conditions are laid and sacrifices must be made. Inevitably the bond between brother and sister is snapped in two. In hindsight, the love they shared that could have prevented this is the exact same love that caused it.
So, you cannot escape the actions of the past then. But can you learn from them? Tellingly there is no casting for the older Acton, but Jude (Jasmine Blackborow), Frayne (Douggie McMeekin) and Hoke (Tom Lewis) reconvene fourteen years later. As each snapshot of 1991 plays out onstage, more is revealed of the dangerous games the teenagers played, focusing on many issues – most notably sexual consent. A lot is said today about how it was a ‘different time’, back then. But accountability (rightly or wrongly) has no limits. As these thirty-somethings examine their past, one wonders who the victims and who the culprits are. And are the intervening years of guilt and atonement enough or should further punishment be executed? This play, while never giving us a succinct answer, suggests we punish ourselves enough. There are no winners.
Sarah Frankcom’s sharp and efficient direction matches Wallace’s writing which is as penetrative as ever. The performances are uniformly magnificent: honest and brutal. Yet it stops just short of drawing us in emotionally. We don’t quite see the fragility, fear and loneliness that lies beneath the rough exterior. Which is a shame, and a surprise. Based partially on past experience, it seems that Wallace has poured a lot of her own heart into the writing; but ultimately it appeals more to the intellect than to our hearts.
“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.