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Two Billion Beats at the Orange Tree Theatre | Review

In some ways, it’s a clever device, using school coursework as a mechanism by which Asha (Safiyya Ingar) would take an interest in matters she might not otherwise have given serious consideration to. But – and perhaps I am being over-analytical here – it’s not a watertight technique, as the dialogue comes across as having been written by someone older than the teenage characters portrayed (quite how old I wouldn’t dare to speculate) trying to sound youthful. It’s almost like someone under the influence over-emphasising their words in order to try to sound as though they are sober, but doing so in a way that ends up amplifying their drunken state.

Safiyya Ingar and Anoushka Chadha in TWO BILLION BEATS, photo Alex Brenner.
Safiyya Ingar and Anoushka Chadha in TWO BILLION BEATS, photo Alex Brenner.

I ought to have kept a tally of the number of times ‘like’ and ‘dude(s)’ were used in this one-act play – and who gets a ‘B plus’ for A-level coursework these days? Asha’s trusty headphones are wired, and while I don’t doubt there are still some youngsters who have wired headphones, most of them I see have wireless ones. That is, if they have them at all: smartphones appear to be the new ghettoblasters.

That said, much of the narrative is, ultimately, grounded in reality, not only in the treatment of Asha’s younger sister Bettina (Anoushka Chadha), but that of other (off-stage) characters. These days there are even teachers stationed at bus stops after school to maintain order, and to ensure members of the public are able to board before the masses of pupils rush on. But what happens after they’re safely (whatever ‘safely’ means) onboard? Without giving too much away, the journey home itself is where bullying can go on largely unchecked.

There are articles in the show’s programme about B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), an Indian social reformer who spoke out against discriminatory policies affecting what were then known as ‘the Untouchables’ within Indian society, and about Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), a British campaigner for the suffragette movement. The storyline makes clear why some biographical details are set out, and there are some interesting outcomes on Asha’s part as she tries to apply what she’s learned to her own circumstances.

With just the two on-stage characters, there’s a lot of exposition rather than dramatization, and a lot of recollections of events that had already taken place. I think the actors would have been more than capable of personifying, for instance, the siblings’ mother, or at least some of the other pupils they regularly interact with, whether constructively and positively or not. I’m not sure the inclusion of an actual hamster, albeit in a suitable cage, added much to proceedings, though there are, at least, no concerns over animal welfare to report.

The play ends somewhat abruptly, as though another act could yet be written to continue the story – but it is, as I have often said, better to leave the audience wanting more than to outstay one’s welcome. The dramatic tension is palpable as the teenage girls grapple with multiple issues: it isn’t easy growing up in the modern world, and there are additional challenges that come with tackling racial and religious prejudices. The rough and tumble school setting, although brutal, also thankfully does not allow for sentimentality, and this production strikes a good balance between humour and poignancy.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Seventeen-year-old Asha is an empathetic rebel, inspired by historical revolutionaries and iconoclasts Sylvia Pankhurst and B R Ambedkar. She’s unafraid of pointing out the hypocrisy around her but less sure how to actually dismantle it.

Meanwhile, her younger sister, Bettina, wide-eyed and naïve, is just trying to get through the school day without getting her pocket money nicked. When Bettina turns to her for help, Asha starts to ask what standing up for her political beliefs really looks like. Between essays, homework, and bus journeys home the two sisters meet outside the school gates each afternoon, smarting at the injustice of the world around them and wondering how they can make it better.

Bouncing with wit, Sonali Bhattacharyya’s upbeat new play is a coming-of-age story about the unfairness of growing up in a world where you don’t make the rules. A blazing account of inner city British-Asian teenage life, this exhilarating world premiere asks what the cost of speaking up really is.

by Sonali Bhattacharyya
Cast: Anoushka Chadha and Safiyya Ingar
Director Nimmo Ismail; Designer Debbie Duru; Lighting Designer Alex Fernandes; Sound Designer Tingying Dong; Movement Director Chi-San Howard; Associate Movement Director Tian Brown-Sampson; Casting Director Christopher Worrall.

5 February – 5 March 2022


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