The Orange Tree theatre in Richmond is just a stone’s throw from the station. It’s a small venue that packs a punch and with the audience surrounding the stage, wherever you sit you feel part of the action. In Two Billion Beats this means you’re transported to the school playground, lunch queue or bus stop, with teenagers Asha (Safiyya Ingar) and Bettina (Anoushka Chadha).
This new play from Sonali Bhattacharyya tells the story of two sisters over a few months of their lives – just a few of their hearts’ “two billion beats”. Oldest sister Asha is going through the stress of exam prep and facing the prospect of the dreaded UCAS applications, while her younger sister Bettina’s biggest concern is saving up enough money for a hamster. But against these typical concerns and desires of two teenage girls there are some truly distressing situations, such as the theft of Bettina’s carefully saved up hamster money on the bus that leads to a white lie getting out of hand, and Asha having a racist slur whispered in her ear at school: her retaliation ends in detention. The racist and Islamophobic behaviour and language in this play is perhaps sadly not shocking, given the world we live in, but hearing two such young women having to witness it and deal with it is uncomfortable.
Ingar and Chadha are true stars in this production. They could have performed with no set, no lighting or sound effects and still held the audience in the palm of their hands. To keep an audience engaged and invested for so long is such a skill and these talented young actors do so with ease and obvious pleasure. The sisterly dynamic is tangible, and their energy fills me with youthful adrenaline – the odd slip up is easily forgiven. A moment when they catch your eye brings you into the heart of their story and means it’s not something you will forget any time soon.
The set itself is relatively simple, with the lighting and sound effects transporting the action to a dingy bus stop or a childhood bedroom. They also use smartphones to great effect, whether it’s Bettina showing pictures of the much sought-after hamster to her sister, or Asha being caught out – she’s not listening to Stormzy, she’s listening to an audio book about Sylvia Pankhurst.
Asha leads the performance, and it is her youthful earnestness, intelligence and curiosity that captures the heart of this play. One of the highlights takes place in the first ten minutes, as Asha describes to us how she structured her argument in an essay about Gandhi and Ambedkar, as though it is a boxing match. There are several moments in the play when we are moved from the day-to-day life of Asha and Bettina to Asha’s internal monologue. This helps the pace of the play and although it does feel like the piece loses some momentum towards the final section, the last moments are powerful, and the erupting applause was well deserved.
Written by: Sonali Bhattacharyya
Directed by: Nimmo Ismail
Produced by: Orange Tree Theatre
Two Billion Beats plays at Orange Tree Theatre until 5 March. Further information and bookings via the below link.