Thursday, 10 February 2022

REVIEW: Two Billion Beats at the Orange Tree Theatre

This was my first visit to the intimate Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond for a production in the round of the world premiere of Two Billion Beats by Sonali Bhattacharyya, an ambitious short play that attempts to reflect on female emancipation, racial and social discrimination, bullying and ambition at school, conflict with parents and sisterly tensions. The burden for explaining these ideas and the way they interlink falls on Safiyya Ingar as the older sister Asha. Though it is her sister Bettina, played by Anoushka Chadha, that gives us the title meaning when she explains that each being’s heartbeats two billion beats in a lifetime and so if it beats quicker, the shorter the life.  

Ingar rises to the challenge magnificently holding court with long monologues and engaging the audience constantly as she prowls around the space gazing out at the audience. Simple light changes take us from her reality at school and at the bus stop to her inner thoughts and her phone is cleverly used to provide the voices of historical and other characters. She tells us of the alternative views of Gandhi, the civil rights campaigner, and B R Ambedkar, a significant figure in the establishment of India’s Independence through an imagined boxing match that becomes the subject of her school essay.

Chadha has a simpler task as the younger sister desperately wanting to buy a hamster for reasons that escaped me but suffering bullying at school and on the school bus and seeking the help of her sister while both girls rail against their mother’s attitude and lack of understanding. When the hamster finally makes its appearance in a cage after about an hour it's own prowling around its cage and gnawing at the bars to escape becomes something of a distraction while they discuss their responses to the bully on the bus.

Nimmo Ismail directs the two excellent young actors and uses the space well making sure that the limitations of an “in the round” staging don’t leave us looking at their backs too often as they constantly move around the space and directly address the audience. An electric sign doubles as a bus stop sign and sets the time period for each scene as the school year progresses towards the leaver’s assembly. We never meet their mother, the teachers or the bully which limits the drama and requires too much exposition to get the complex ideas and simple story across.

The two marvellous actresses do well in creating the familial tensions but the promised messages about “smarting at the injustice of the world” and the “unfairness of growing up in a world where you don’t make the rules” gets overwhelmed by the lies that Bettina tells and the cuteness of the hamster she wants. The play ends with words from B R Ambedkar’s May 1936 essay “Annihilation of Caste” asking “are you fit for political power?” suggesting this was the central message of the play. 

However, it is the content of Asha’s school essays that are illuminating and challenging and the debate about how to bring about social change and acceptance is powerful and worthwhile. While the historical references were fascinating, I struggled to maintain concentration throughout the play perhaps because of the uncomfortable stool seats, wordy speeches or the distraction of the hamster and the audience opposite. Nevertheless, it’s thought-provoking with a diverse appeal and for that, it can be applauded. You can catch it on a stream in the comfort of your own armchair from 8th to 11 March after the run concludes. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Lower C | Price of Ticket: £25
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