Tuesday 10 October 2017

Theatre review: B

The Royal Court is aiming to produce a great volume of plays over its current season, in part by creating temporary performance spaces, in part by producing short shows so they can play two in repertory in a single night in the larger Downstairs Theatre. The first of the two alternating one-acters is Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón's surreal meditation on terrorism and general dissatisfaction, B. The "B" word that must never be said is "bomb," which is what teenagers Marcela (Aimée-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are planning to plant in a bank as a mission statement - although what statement they're actually trying to make is hard to pin them down to. In an abandoned flat they arrange to meet with José Miguel (Paul Kaye), a bomb-maker with decades of experience, but there's a number of obstacles to them actually carrying out their plan.

The more farcical of these comes when neighbour Carmen (Sarah Niles) tries to be friendly; trying to get rid of her by saying Marcela's just had a bereavement, they only make her start mothering them.

More seriously, the girls had imagined setting off a loud but fairly harmless bomb to cause property destruction, but José Miguel isn't satisfied with that, and has built a nail-bomb designed for maximum casualties. B is certainly an odd little play; parts of it work very well, its dark comedy draws you into its absurdity – part of the inspiration for it is the fact that Chile has had hundreds of terrorist attacks in recent years, mostly without casualties and with no clear philosophy behind them, so that eventually they end up as background noise, with no meaning for the people they’re supposedly calling into action.

There’s a memorably brutalist Chloe Lamford set and director Sam Pritchard has also got a great cast to work with: Edwards is always likeable and here provides an agitated enthusiasm, Samal an earnestness as Alejandra, who says she almost wants to go to prison because all her friends are there, and Kaye an unpredictability. In the smaller role Niles lends a touch of comic absurdity as the supposedly concerned neighbour, who seems to think the most comforting thing to tell Marcela is that she likes to bake cakes naked and covered in flour. Well, we all knew there’d be some changes when the Bake-Off moved to Channel 4.

It was always obvious that the farce had a darker purpose, and the real problem here is Calderón plays his hand way too early, ditching the comedy to look closer at his characters’ motivations, and their confusion about them. He’s determined to give each of the three would-be terrorists a heart-baring monologue and this is where the play tipped over for me into a failure. Individually each speech is strong but together they try the patience, and if the point is that the far left’s motivations have become muddled, he lets his characters spend way too much time failing to articulate what it really is they believe.

B by Guillermo Calderón in a translation by William Gregory is booking in repertory until the 21st of October at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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