FringeReview UK 2022
Originally from the OT’s Outside/Inside festival of 2021, developed by Guy Jones. Directed by Nimmo ismael, designed by Debbie Duru, lit by Alex Fernandes, with Sound and Composition by Tingying Dong. Movement Director Chi-San Howard, Associate movement Director Tian Brown-Sampson, Voice Coach Emma Woodvine, Casting by Christopher Worrall.
Voices: Sanjeev Bhaskar, Omar Bynon, and Claire Corbett.
Filmed by the Umbrella Rooms
Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Stage Manager Caoimhe Regan, DSM Laura Mattison, ASM Nicole Scott, Costume Supervisor Rebecca Carpenter, Production Manager Stuart Burgess, Deputy Production Manager Lisa Hood.
Filmed by The Umbrella Rooms.
Theatre Environment designed by Simon Daw and Mark Doubleday.
Till March 11th online.
The six plays from the Orange Tree’s Outside/Inside Festival in March and April last year were an early, exhilarating blast back to theatre. Though live, they were viewed online by the audience.
One of the very best, Somali Bhattacharyya’s Two Billion Beats has been extended to 85 minutes from its original 35 or so. Originally developed by Guy Jones and directed this time by Nimmo Ismael (Georgia Green directed the original), it’s a vivid, ultimately uplifting conversation between two school-age sisters: one seventeen and already uber-political, modelling herself on Sylvia Pankhurst and B.R. Ambedkar; her fifteen-year-old sister compromising with bullies, handing over protection money so she won’t get beaten up on a bus. And there’s the hamster. Or is it a guinea-pig?
In the sunken OT stage there’s items like a hamster cage, pull-out drawers and the hint of a school gate as designed here by Debbie Duru, lit by Alex Fernandes, now far more tenebrously; with sound and hauntingly simple composition by Tingying Dong.
The play we saw last year was packed with riches and gestures that never seemed forced. Here though we’re allowed to examine incidents in a true sequence, not as reported reveals; and though there’s meaningful pauses, the incidents change, open us to the sisters rather than reveal elements hidden for dramatic purposes. And it’s even funnier.
There’s now an inset extending several minutes into the play proper with a preamble into the originally abrupt and explosive lecture seventeen-year-old Asha launches on. This time there’s more history-as-entertainment, flamboyant display, Asha now more of a performer. Later we get a new fillet of Sylvia Pankhurst too, as Asha underscores how her teacher’s comfortable with Asha critiquing Asians, but not British. And a running joke about having to read up on Magna Carta but listening to a podcast on Pankhurst.
Confident Asha (Safiyya Ingar) lectures us on peaceful resistance Gandhi style. It’s not the hagiography you might expect; Gandhi can use blackmail against some he disapproves of and Asha’s no fan, to the horror of her mother who won’t speak to her. ‘So the pen can be mightier than the sword, but it’s not always clear if the right person wins.’ Asha gets 80% but is pulled up for retaliating to racism. For some reason if you’re Asian fighting back endangers your uni chances.
Fifteen and two years younger than her sister, Anoushka Chadha’s Bettina is impressed. Still she wants a hamster, but it’s big for a hamster by the pics – Asha’s nonplussed. Bettina reflects a hamster’s heartbeats are far quicker than ours, so they die soon: we all get just two billion beats. Prophesy for the rest of her life.
Asha’s got challenges too. Her sister’s being bullied throws her own into relief. Asha’s narration of how she tries to square accounts with Mrs L and her disenchantment is palpable. The way liberal values edge into racist undertows – why is Asha equally punished for someone else’s racist slur against her? – rendered a superb riposte quietly delivered in the original. ‘Are you finished?’ asks Bettina. ‘No. But I am done.’ I miss that but Bhattacharrya’s darkened as well as rounded her characters. This Asha has to find a more complex way of being done.
Ingar’s wonderfully vibrant, mouth and trousers and as her name denotes, alive. Chadha really engages with the sheer quirk of growing up, with canny ripostes to her intellectual sibling. It’s the new material later though that pitches them against each other and provokes a crisis both actors palpably spark with.
It wasn’t clear how the original material might extend. But fifty minutes in we’re into new territory, Bhattacharyya engineering peripeteias and fresh outcomes: Bettina’s apparent victory in standing up for herself hides an accusation pitting the sisters on opposite sides, with a third character invoked. Confrontations are visceral and wrenching. The sisters’ mother too has been looming a long time and in a monologue Asha invokes a climactic echo of generational betrayal. The play almost bursts out of its two-hander format, especially as Bhattacharyya makes dramatic use of the recorded voices off.
There are moments you want to hear again, the dialogue so rapid you fear losing a vital plot-point. Developing a troubled climax from an initially more intimate play also has challenges with sinewy new plot-twists the original never possesses; but overall you feel it’s necessary and takes the work to a different level.
This is the kind of coming-of-age play OT do so well, warm but alert to dark adult themes. In Bhattacharyya’s play there’s a wealth of detail with an ambivalence of register that can define adolescence. It was bursting with promise before. Now it delivers with a visceral yes.