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‘Two Billion Beats’ – bullying, justice, fairness and sisters hanging it all out… (play review)

‘Two Billion Beats’ – bullying, justice, fairness and sisters hanging it all out… (play review)

New play by award-winning playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya is well performed and thoughtful…

HEARING how two great Indian leaders of the Independence struggle – Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) might battle it out in an imaginary boxing ring and prove their worth to an Asian sixth former may not sound like a lot of fun and yet…

Sonali Bhattacharayya’s latest play, ‘Two Billion Beats’ is very much about the personal and the political as seen by 17-year-old Asha (Safiyya Ingar). And it’s not just these two men that preoccupy her political education – Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) is another powerful figure in her railings against the world.

Precociously smart and carrying the weight of many struggles on her young shoulders, she’s very much a young woman with a lot to say. Inspired perhaps more by Ambedkar than Gandhi – she revisits their respective positions on caste with her powerful young eyes; Asha is very much on the side of the underdog.

All these figures may seem distant and abstract to a teenager’s life now, but Bhattacharyya shows how some young women, intelligent and engaged with the world, seek out heroes from a different era with which to carry today’s battles. It is endearing to think in this day when Instagram might have more influence on how teenagers view the world, that such a girl like Asha can exist.

On paper here, it might still seem a stretch, but Ingar herself injects much energy and passion into Asha, making her both wholly credible and very likeable. In some ways this is also a play about sisters and the sibling dynamic between two girls whose relationship as sisters may well be coloured by the central incident this drama explores.

Bettina (Anoushka Chadha) and Asha (Safiyya Ingar) ©Alex Brenner

While Asha is confident and mature for her age, her 14-year-old sister Bettina (Anoushka Chadha) is bullied and having a hard time of it at school. Naturally, she confides in her sister.
Asha is less sure how to deal with this – she knows of the group and tries to coach her younger sibling into a response that will stop the abuse and create a better path for Bettina.

As you might expect it doesn’t really go to plan and Asha almost certainly exacerbates an issue which is brewing underneath the laws of the school jungle – where older and bigger – almost always win out in petty battles over pocket money, food, or any other desirable impersonal commodity.

That one of Bettina’s tormentors just happens to be Muslim only further inflames the situation the younger girl is trying to de-escalate – much to the absolute horror of the fair-minded Asha.
Exploring Asha’s bid to put things right is richly explored by Bhattacharyya and revolves much around ‘second chances’.

Nimmo Ismail directs and these three women form a powerful trio of creatives who all look like they all have more to offer.

There is minimal use of props and the staging is mostly simple and the movements in time are reflected on a very realistic-looking electronic bus display.

This is a powerful and distinct play that asks lots of interesting questions – where it perhaps slightly loses its edge is in trying to tackle a little too much and not providing enough context to Asha’s politicisation – the girl’s single mum is underwritten (never seen but mentioned) and the wider import of family relations and other school friendships and how these might play out in tackling the bullying incident at the centre of ‘Two Billion Beats’. There is also some cute musings around the gerbil Bettina covets and gets.

Nevertheless, Bhattacharyya is an exciting voice – she won The Theatre Uncut Political Playwrighting award last year – and it’s great to see a character such as Asha take centre stage and for political consciousness to be a subject of drama. The ‘Two Billion Beats‘ title refers to the number of times our hearts will beat in a lifetime.

Both actors deserve much credit for holding the stage with little else to fall back on – this may not be for everyone but for those who like politics and the play of power as it presents itself through any school – this shouldn’t be missed.

Acv rating:***½ (out of five)

Two Billion Beats’ (From February 5), until March 5 Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence St, Richmond, TW9 2SA.

More info/tickets:

Interview with playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture