Two Billion Beats review – moving portrayal of sisterly love

“Play the game,” Asha’s mum tells her. After the gifted teenager hands in an essay on the politician BR Ambedkar, criticising the thoughts of Gandhi, her mother wants her to keep her head down and focus on getting into university. Inspired by historical revolutionaries and iconoclasts, Asha (Safiyya Ingar) cannot resist pointing out the hypocrisy of big thinkers. But can she apply their ideas to fight injustice in the playground too?

In this compelling coming of age drama, the words of Ambedkar and the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst form the basis of Asha’s political learning. First shown as part of the Orange Tree’s Inside/Outside livestream over lockdown, Sonali Bhattacharyya’s play moves the ideologies from the past into the present. With Asha battling to prove that there are different sides even to history we see as sacred, there is a lot to fit in. The finale may leave threads of these ideas hanging, but the play manages to still feel topical.

Aided by Alex Fernandes’ bold lighting design, which snaps from harsh-coloured flushes to warm daylight tones, Asha similarly switches from sharing her intimate thoughts on racism and society, to daily bus stop chitchat with her sister. Bettina, the younger of the two, is dewy-eyed and sweet, looking always to Asha for guidance. Played earnestly by Anoushka Chadha, innocence bounces out of her as she hangs around, killing time, to be close to her sister. “I’ve literally got your back!” Bettina squeals while repeatedly stepping up and down from the kerb.

The sisters’ relationship gives heart to this fully packed two-hander. As they work together to find a way to protect Bettina from bullies who steal her birthday money on the school bus, their innate difference makes their relationship all the more delightful. When they celebrate their success in an elaborate dance routine, I’d defy anyone to remain unmoved.

Directed by Nimmo Ismail and stuffed with moments that radiate warmth – including the appearance of a live hamster on stage – the play conveys the gentle unpredictability of sibling love in its purest form.

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