Two Billion Beats: sibling loyalty is tested in this meaty but speechy drama
You have to hand it to a theatre (an unfunded one too) that can programme, within a few months, a superb revival of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, an imminent revival of Duet for One, the 1980 Tom Kempinksi two-hander inspired by the life of Jacqueline du Pré, with Somerset Maugham and Shakespeare on the horizon too. That’s a rich mix, and the Orange Tree diversifies it further by bringing back a play first seen online, mid-pandemic in 2021, set in the present-day.
“An empathetic rebel” is how Sonali Bhattacharyya’s stage directions sum up her British Asian heroine, Asha, a 17-year-old sixth-former. This diligent free-thinker should be the teacher’s pet. But she falls foul of the authorities after being racially abused by a fellow pupil. Instead of being supported for fighting back, she’s put in detention, and forced to clear up local graffiti.
On paper, in her homework, she’s on the side of the underdog, rooting for the lesser-known Indian social reformer BR Ambedkar in his war of words with Gandhi about dismantling the caste system – and, considering the Pankhursts, she prefers Sylvia’s idealism. But it’s on account of her own sister, the younger, initially devoted Bettina, that her principles get challenged and her loyalties tested.
In an interesting dilemma, she goes from concern about Bettina being menaced to siding with the main culprit, who gets suspended from school for supposed possession of a knife, after Bettina overstates the threat. The boy in question is Muslim, giving rise to the thought that he’s being discriminated against. What value does Asha’s desire for social justice have if she puts flesh and blood before principle? Equally, why put a bully from the opposite sex first? As their attitudes diverge, the younger complains: “You’re stabbing me in the back.”
Bhattacharyya extracts admirable dramatic meat from two characters conversing over 90-minutes. Co-directors Nimmo Ismail and Tian Brown-Sampson nicely serve the switches from solo address to sibling stand-offs, a hermetic quality suggested by a design that barely offers room to swing a satchel in. Even so, and despite committed and plausible performances from Shala Nyx as the self-righteous Asha and Tanvi Virmani, first deadpan mischief then seething annoyance as her little sis, the script can sound rather like essay bumf at times and tip into lecture-mode (“We need to build [a lifeline] for one another”).
That arresting title? A reference to the finite nature of our life-span, and our average maximum number of heart-beats. Is this worth whatever number of beats of your time? On balance, yes, but probably only just.
Until Feb 4. Tickets: 020 8940 3633; orangetreetheatre.co.uk