Writer: Nellie McQuinn
Director: Veronica Quilligan
Reviewer: Steve Barfield
The Public Reviews Rating:
Superbly and bravely acted by Nellie McQuinn, this one woman show makes for a very harrowing, powerful and emotionally moving hour in the theatre. To say it is enjoyable or even cathartic would be mistaken, as this is a bearing witness to the terrifying horror and loss of the 7/7 London bombings, told through the story of one young woman, Annie, who was a friend of McQuinn’s and lost her life due to the bombing. I was left with a confused scramble of feelings and memories as the play achieves a resonance with anyone who has lost someone they cared for in shocking circumstances, even if they were not as extreme as a terrorist incident.
The Tristan Bates Theatre has been sparely set with a list of missing people posters of people 9/11 style (somewhat confusing as these weren’t used in London as far as I know), and some effective use is made of video projection of the events of 7/7 at the beginning and the end of the play, but the play mostly depends on McQuinn’s bravura performance. One thing I found confusing were several references in the program to this being about another and earlier death of one of McQuinn’s friends, although there was no mention of this in the play (though one death often triggers memories of another).
What we see is an imagined dramatic monologue by McQuinn in which Annie recounts what happens that fateful day and the desperate consequences for her of the bombing (she died in hospital some 50 days later and could not communicate with anyone as she was in a near-coma). This is somewhat similar to the convention of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, where the person who everyone believes is in a coma (in Bauby’s case ‘locked-in’ syndrome), can actually think and listen to the world around them, but unlike that novel McQuinn’s play is fictional rather than factual (it is an imagined monologue), generally realistic and focuses on the detail of Annie’s injuries and her relationship with her mother.
In obvious ways this is a work of mourning and of valediction as much as testimony to the events of 7/7 though the one woman monologue structure and yet the decision to stage Annie’s monologue means that much of the work’s gripping power comes from an unresolved tension between the needs of mourning ( to remember and move on), and the anxious, melancholic reiteration of the work of testimony about 7/7. It is this which both enables the greater resonance of the piece and makes it so uncomfortable to watch as McQuinn’s emotions are clearly conflicted and ambivalent in acting out this piece through her imagined dead friend’s voice. Is the play for McQuinn herself, is it for her friend Annie and her family, is it for all the victims of 7/7, for everyone who has lost young friends they have loved? The play’s power lies in this kind of rawness and emotional confusion, when having chosen a particular stance towards what it wanted to do with material might have tamed some of this ferocious power.
Where I thought the play came undone was in trying to extend to a discussion of the politics of the terrorists of 7/7 and in one sense this may be a problem as much because of the youthful nature of the single voice we witness, Annie, who is an 18 year old student, as much as anything else. ‘My name is Annie. I am eighteen years old. One anonymous Wednesday I was taken to hell and back by a bomber who decided to blow himself up in the name of his religion… This is my story.’ However, it is far too simplistic to cast the bombings as done in the name of a unified religion, in this case Islam (even though this is then cleverly rebutted later in the narrative in the story of the weeping Muslim nurse ),when Al Quaeda is a form of political Islam which is as much if not more a creation of modernity, western foreign policy and funding than straightforward tradition. While the organisation’s aims have certainly been to create and foster conflict between Islam and the west through terror, they have also focused on a similar strategy towards between Sunni and Shia sects or against Muslims they disagree with for whatever reason. In reality Al Quaeda has killed many more Muslims than it has Western civilians.
In a similar fashion I was unsure of the citations of numbers killed in terrorist incidents and felt it was unclear; seeming to only include westerners and leaving out the frequent terrorist incidents in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere. This is only of course to consider Al Quaeda affiliated terrorism. In certain ways the format chosen precludes the play from exploring more sophisticated views of the politics of 7/7 because it is so much about one young teenager’s situation, but it perhaps needed to think of some way to address this problem. I also thought that some tightening of the plot and cutting of the material at points could have helped to give the play even more punch than it already has, but finally I was overall very impressed by McQuinn and her powerful, haunting one woman performance of this traumatic material.