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Two Billion Beats at The Orange Tree

It’s easy to see why the Orange Tree has brought this one back for another run, less than a year after its first outing here. This is a bold, passionate play by Sonali Bhattacharyya about family conflict and the legacy of historic ideologies. Such things never go away for long.

Shala Nyx in Two Billion Beats - photo by The Other Richard.
Shala Nyx in Two Billion Beats – photo by The Other Richard.

In the loving but spikey relationship between this pair of sisters no reputations are entirely safe, not even that of the much-sanctified Mahatma Gandhi, for his dismissive views on the Dalit, the lowest of India’s caste of Harijans, or “Untouchables.

The elder girl, Ascha, has a problem nearer home; at home, in fact. It is her mother. While Ascha is a clever and motivated student, she has offended her deeply by daring to take issue with Gandhi.

Conscientious and questing, she may have just got excellent marks for her history essay but, in her mother’s eyes she has committed an unpardonable slander in daring to criticise the Mahatma; if anything should be untouchable, it is his reputation. Not so, argues Ascha; the proper object of admiration should be none other than a Dalit, B. R. Ambedkar, who played a crucial role in drafting the Indian constitution.

If all this seems removed from run-of-the-mill causes of domestic friction, it is no such thing. It feeds so relentlessly into home life that Ascha hangs around after school in order not to return until her mother is safely out at work. The political is as personal as that.

The younger sister, Bettina – Year Ten to Ascha’s Year Thirteen – can be seen as a victim of this fall-out. All she wants is for Ascha to be on the bus home with her so that she doesn’t have to receive the unwelcome, even bullying, attentions of Adil and his mates.

What will happen, their mother wonders, if – or rather when – the history being studied is British rather than Indian, and such revered figures as the Pankhursts fall under Ascha’s rebellious scrutiny.

In such areas, Bhattacharyya’s dialogue is beautifully nuanced between the competing forces of moral rage and personal yearnings, public affairs and private ones.

As Asha and Bettina respectively, Shala Nyx and Tanvi Virmani give a finely judged double-act, moving backwards and forwards between resentment at the other one’s age and stage in life to the difficult knowledge that there is strength to be had from unity. Shal Nyx is particularly moving – literally – in her shift from the confines of her character’s life to “leaving” the play and addressing the audience as if it is they/we who are her confidants. Directors Nimmo Ismail and

Tian Brown-Sampson helps the pair embody these joined lives as they evolve between the freedom of private hopes and and the weight of public history.

Why Two Billion Beats? This, we are reminded, is the average number of heartbeats in a life. The message; better make best use of the allocation before we’re all history. The ticker is ticking.

4 stars

Reviews by Alan Franks

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.

23 January 2023 – 4 February 2023

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  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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