Two Billion Beats, Orange Tree Theatre

Monday 30th January 2023

Shala Nyx and Tanvi Virman in Two Billion Beats. Photo: The Other Richard
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Do the right thing! But doing the right thing isn’t easy — especially if you are a teen. And a female teen who is being pressurised by your mother and your school teacher. It takes courage to make the best decisions, it’s scary and it’s hard. In Sonali Bhattacharyya’s slim two-hander, Two Billion Beats, which premiered at the Orange Tree a year ago and now returns with a new cast, 17-year-old Asha and her 15-year-old sister Bettina struggle to behave in an ethical way when confronted by racism and bullying. As Bettina reminds us, most human beings have two billion heartbeats per lifetime so it’s a real struggle to not waste these on heightened anxiety and fear.

Set in Leicester, over a number of weeks as Asha’s secondary school career is drawing to a close, the play gives a rapid sketch of her situation. Hoping to go to university in London, and with a mother who keeps a sharp eye on her schoolwork, Asha is a bright teen with good academic grades. Potentially a high achiever. More interested in books than in boys, she also has a powerfully idealistic sense of social justice. To the dismay of her mum, she writes a punchy essay that criticises Mahatma Gandhi for his high-caste neglect of Dalits, India’s lowest class of “untouchables”. In a brilliant monologue she describes how she wrote her essay, starting with a clickbait phrase and then outlining her radical argument. Great.

But Asha’s mum is not keen on her daughter criticising the saint of Indian independence. Not so great. Especially as Asha quotes from the Dalit activist BR Ambedkar, who came into conflict with Gandhi (and lost) during the creation of the Indian state. But her teacher, Mrs L, is delighted with her pupil. Things change, however, when Asha turns her idealistic eye to the British Suffragettes. Although Mrs L’s heroes are Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Asha criticises them from the point of view of the younger Sylvia, the more radical one of the family. Not so great. Her enthusiasms for the great idealists of history, however, are really put to the test when Bettina tells her she is being bullied.

A complete contrast to her elder sister, Bettina is more interested in getting a pet hamster and pop music than in reading or politics. But her friendly persona and eagerness to please makes her a target of Adeel and some other boys, who rob her of the money she is saving to buy a pet. When she asks her more assertive sister for help, things at first get better, but then soon spin out of control as both the teens discover that doing the right thing is not as easy as they expected. Bhattacharyya’s warmly sympathetic portrait of the two girls is the beating heart of the play, and she has a real talent for sibling dialogue, which is both emotionally true and comic.

Although it is only 90 minutes long, Two Billion Beats packs in a lot of material — often in the form of direct quotations — about both Ambedkar and Pankhurst. It is educative and interesting, illustrating Asha’s character while questioning simple views of history and giving voice to those who have been sidelined, but it also challenges the playwright to make a coherent link between the distant past and the immediate present of Asha and Bettina. Although Bhattacharyya makes a strong case for the need to behave ethically, the relationship between history’s heroes and the idealistic Asha is a bit fuzzy and inconclusive. The play has both too much material and too little — plot gaps proliferate.

In fact, Asha’s own passionate desire to do the right thing is so strong that it takes over the writing, with the plotting of the final third of the play becoming increasingly unconvincing despite the charm and humour of the dialogues. A sharper dose of realism would have worked better, and made the anti-racist strand much stronger. Still, there is much to enjoy in the playwright’s depiction of the two girls, their sibling banter, and their delight in standing up to bullies, especially the heart-warming dance sequence to Cardi B’s “Money” — a moment of pure joy.

Directed by Nimmo Ismail and Tian Brown-Sampson, with a design by Debbie Duru, Two Billion Beats is a lively story beautifully performed by Shala Nyx and Tanvi Virman, who take the roles first performed by Safiyya Ingar and Anoushka Chadha in 2022. Nyx’s Asha is a fine mixture of breezy outward confidence and inner uncertainty, vulnerability even. Her struggle to reconcile moral imperatives with the expectations of her mum and Mrs L is lovely to watch. Likewise, Virman’s Bettina explores both the comedy of her character, having some of the funniest lines, and its pathos. Very touching. Despite its imperfections, the play is a sympathetic account of teen life.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk 

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