Thursday is the second play seen in Adelaide in two years which concerns the 2005 bombing of the London public transport system by Islamist terrorists. In 2012, STCSA presented Simon Stephens’ Pornography in an excellent production directed by Daniel Clarke. There are many similarities between the two plays, both superficial and intrinsic, but the real question is not so much what they have in common as what it is about the ‘7/7’ attacks that has engaged the imaginations of multiple playwrights and theatre companies. With relatively few causalities (52 dead, about 700 injured), the bombings are dwarfed by those which took place in Bali in 2002, Madrid in 2004 and, of course, the United States in 2001. The ‘War on Terror’ has had numerous theatrical treatments, but the London attacks remain uniquely visible on our stages. Why?
The answer, in part, lies in what director Chris Drummond calls the ‘perfect geographical symmetry’ of a collaboration between English and Adelaide companies about Adelaide woman Gill Hicks’ extraordinary rescue and recovery from one of the explosions which tore through the London Underground on that fateful Thursday. Hicks, the last living victim to be pulled from the rubble, lost both her legs below the knee. It is a story with all the dramatic potential of a classic survivor’s tale: triumph over adversity, the victory of human kindness and courage over hatred and evil.
In Thursday, playwright Bryony Lavery has constructed a fluid, labyrinthine drama which, like Pornography, sees multiple stories interconnecting and overlapping around the events of 7 July. Hicks’ story is initially submerged as various couples are introduced going about their weekday morning routines, ordinary people preparing for a day they have no reason to expect will be anything other than normal; an academic (Paul Blackwell) rehearses a speech about the deterioration of cities, a loved-up couple (Emma Handy and Nathan O’Keefe) lust and frolic, lesbians Maxine and Hels (Lena Kaur and Rochenda Sandall) steel themselves for another 12 hours in a world in which they cannot yet be themselves. Then there is Rose (Kate Mulvany), the Gill Hicks proxy, floundering in what appears to be a doomed relationship with the well-meaning but slothful Kev (Martin Hutson).
Lavery’s intent with this busy opening sequence seems to be to lull the audience into a false sense of security before the bomb blast and its inevitably life-shattering aftermath. The trouble is that it is too long, uneven in tone and not populated with characters compelling enough to spend so much time with without the genuine narrative thrust of the play’s second half. The banality of the set-up – and Lavery’s inexplicable fixation with toileting – clashes with the sometimes arch, and sometimes throwaway narration provided by Tom Mothersdale and Rochenda Sandall. Perhaps these flaws are a result of Thursday’s long, collaborative gestation, but the play markedly improves during its second half when Lavery’s writing sharpens and each character comes into clearer focus.
What does impress from the play’s outset is Dan Potra’s elegant design, a shifting series of scrims which, under Colin Grenfell’s lighting, persuasively conjure domestic spaces, a hospital and, of course, the London Underground. Quentin Grant’s quietly haunting live piano provides exemplary accompaniment, boosted by the Norwood Concert Hall’s reverberant acoustics.
Thursday feels more like the product of a marriage of convenience between two theatre companies than anything else. There is no denying that Gill Hicks’ story is a remarkable one, but I left the play unconvinced that it is a story which needed to be interpreted for the theatre. Perhaps its most interesting feature is its engagement with the idea of survivors as idols, luck supplanted by courage by a society hungry for heroes. In the end, though, Lavery emerges as too much of a sentimentalist to make this critique stick. The symbolism of the Gill Hicks character’s name is too obvious to require elucidating, and the play’s quietly triumphal ending left me cold rather than uplifted. The reuniting of Rose and Kev – now in possession of a six-pack and ready to cart his disabled partner around like some kind of beatific superhero – is odd to say the least, and strikes the wrong chord about the independence of both women and the physically disadvantaged.
There is a lot to like about Thursday – its wholly good performances, excellent music and design, occasionally lyrical and often amusing writing – but it underachieves. Lavery makes some admirably bold choices, such as making Rose abrasive and unlikeable rather than martyr-like, but Thursday ultimately shies away from its potential to dig deeply into its themes of grief, loss and identity, instead opting for answerless romanticism. It aims to hearten, and to an extent it does, but it is not easy to forget that human beings are as adept at destruction as they are at decency.