Who will be first out of the gate when theatres eventually reopen? It is a serious question, one that is surely taxing the minds of producers and directors across the country as they consider what can be safely staged in response to social distancing rules and public health expectations. Musicals with their large cast and crew requirements are likely to be at the back of the queue while plays with only one or two characters may be all that can be offered for a while. As Simon Evans’s cheeky new comedy points out, when the Government finally gives the go ahead, the best prepared teams will have their pick of the playhouses and first dibs on an audience desperate to get back to live theatre.
Evans’s delightful six-part comedy – showing weekly on BBC1 but also available in full on the iPlayer – centres around this notion while drawing on our lockdown experience of video calling platforms as a director tries to herd his two reluctant actors into rehearsals. Online theatre has changed considerably in the last three months, and we now seem a million miles from those tentative live readings on clunky Zoom calls uploaded to Youtube. Creatives have learned a lot and learned fast, and this rapid response to telling stories has resulted in some fascinating new content being created.
As well as ITV’s Lockdown Stories and the Donmar’s Midnight Your Time, several well-known theatre writers and performers created the anthology series Unprecedented, using the premise of video calling to tell a fascinating range of tales that covered everything from neighbourhood parties, vile team meetings and domestic abuse. No two perspectives and, crucially, no two filming styles were the same offering plenty of innovative approaches to what are straightened circumstances.
In a sense Staged is the culmination of all of that new knowledge, combining different kinds of camera, some installed as (or made to look like) webcams and others set-up and operated in the actors own homes, adding a level of polish to the show that would have seemed virtually impossible a few months ago. It also gives Evans greater flexibility in how he tells the story using a wider range of footage, including scene-break captures of deserted London streets, so eerie during the first phase of lockdown, and more sophisticated film cutting techniques that hardly betray the unusual circumstances in which this show was created.
Much has been made in the press of the obvious comparisons with The Trip, but that makes it sound derivative and although the slightly vexed two-person conversation is structurally similar, Staged actually seems better situated in the faux social-realism of fly-on-the-wall style “mockumentaries” as well the vast body of work generated about life backstage. Staged is more than merely 90-minutes of random banter between actors Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Evans uses the time to construct a sense of how their personalities and frustrations have consequences for the work they are failing to accomplish.
While largely fictionalised, the border with reality – these are their homes and families – draws a line directly back to the comic seriousness of Victoria Wood’s earnest documentary sketches from the As Seen on TV series, passing through both The Office and This Country as it delineates its scenario so, rather than a workplace or a village, Staged is confined by the video platform and the physical boundary of the protagonist’s homes, using that to drive conversation and elicit reactions.
And this episodic production also speaks to theatre and film’s fascination with itself. At its heart, this is a story about the creative process and much of the humour derives from the ineffectual director losing control of the rehearsal period while mishandling various eruptions of theatre-politics that threaten to derail the play entirely. In this sense, Staged has everything in common with All About Eve, Present Laughter and, more recently, The Understudy (also recorded during lockdown), part of a long history of self-anatomising theatre and film.
As a story, then, Staged sits in this much broader context , giving an added dimension to the interactions between Evans, Tennant and Sheen, providing psychological insight into the fluctuating emotions of characters prevented by the pandemic from doing their jobs. At only 15-18 minutes per episode, these are perfectly pitched bite-sized pieces that can be eeked out or consumed in one sitting via the iPlayer, either way Staged is a richly rewarding experience.
The first episode is predominantly exposition as Evans establishes the premise. Initially it is a little stagey as Simon anxiously waits for lead David to convince Michael to costar in a revival of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and to undertake rehearsals online so they are ahead of the competition when playhouses reopen. Padding around in his dressing gown and staring anxiously at the view, the heightened style is a little broad, but soon settles into an addictive rhythm.
The messes Evans creates for himself are pure sitcom as poor judgement and a lack of authority cause a ripple effect across the series. The consequences are left to a selection of juicy cameo roles in which producer Jo and a series of fabulously-timed guest stars pick up the comedy baton – none of whom should be spoiled in advance, the impact of their big reveal in the show is best discovered in the moment. The biggest of these appears in Episode Three when the original actor that Michael replaced must be told he is off the project. What ensues is a hilarious conversation initially between characters Simon, Michael and David, and then eventually with the guest star as the conferencing technology itself becomes the means of twice catching David out in silly lies that leave him with egg on his face.
Another well-known performer appears in Episode Five as Simon haplessly recruits another actor to the cast without really having a major part for them, leaving David and Michael agog as they withstand their guest’s aggressively upbeat approach to lockdown. And finally in Episode Six a joyous cameo from a theatre legend drafted in by Simon and producer Jo to get his errant leads and rehearsals back on track. The recurring appearance of Nina Sosanya as fierce producer Jo is wonderful, and while you long to see more of her dismissive cool, her rationed appearances are, at the same time, just enough to pep-up the action as she savagely berates Simon’s failures. Listen out for her unseen assistant’s hysterical quip about furloughing him.
All of this builds a strong frame within which the two leads can shape their performances, the tenure of which ebbs and flows throughout the series as they bicker and support one another in what are two very game performances. The chemistry that Sheen and Tennant have developed overcomes their physical distance. As egos clash over credits, they force each other to stand in the corner for lying and brutally criticise each other’s appearance and performances – David is “cartoonish” according to Michael, while Michael is “mumbly” in David’s view – the enduring affection and respect for one another defies their socially distant technological interactions. Changing the credits at the beginning and end of every episode to reflect the discussions and dramas within is also a very nice touch.
The character of David is given the broadest context in some ways with scenes filmed around his home, participating in rehearsal calls from different rooms while interacting with his family or dealing with the pressure of lockdown. He is the more introspective of the two, and Tennant creates a sense of isolation and purposelessness in David, a man lost without the work that defines him. Wearing the same costume throughout, the strain of being trapped at home overwhelms him and he spirals into a kind of functioning depression as the series draws on, struggling to focus or find any creative satisfaction in the stunted play rehearsals.
Yet, Tennant doesn’t let the audience feel too sorry for him, tempering his creation with less appealing traits including a self-absorption that leaves his wife to manage their five children while almost neglecting their care in favour of calling Michael when he is required to parent. David also lies and manipulates other characters to avoid difficult confrontations which end up rebounding on him in a number of amusing ways, his sulky annoyance at being caught out in Episode Three is a highlight in an overall performance that is the essence of tragicomic.
Michael’s point of view is quite different, and the webcam angle is the only one the audience sees from his perspective. Other aspects of his life are referenced in conversation, but this singular view adds a layer of privacy to his character that fits the slightly belligerent disdain with which he regards the entire process and especially his Director. There is a different kind of ego in Michael which Sheen plays up to, one based on his professional success and lack of rejection. Some of the most entertaining conversations with David involve a sniping comparison of their theatre credits and this version of Michael thirsts for praise.
Michael is a far less introspective character than David, so softer tones are added in the concern for an elderly neighbour, a conversation that escalates across the series as he is blackmailed for secreting empty bottles in her recycling bin and eventually becomes involved in something more concerning. Sheen keeps Michael’s inner world under wraps to a degree, talking largely about work and nonsense but rarely giving much away about his emotional state. Yet, there is also plenty of humour in Michael’s continual ire with an argument in Episode Four one of his best moments while his menacing tendency to loom into the camera shows a technical understanding of film that proves extremely adept.
As their long-suffering partners Georgia Tennant has the best of it, a superwoman figure able to manage their many children, help a friend give birth, sell a novel and support her husband – mirroring the actor’s real self where she has additional hats of actor, photographer and producer. She has a naturalness on screen that suits the tone entirely and amusingly refuses to indulge David’s maudlin demands for attention. Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg is less successful and while her wider life is more limited, Lundberg’s performance is too knowing, not quite meshing with the understated, conversational silliness of the very British humour.
In just three months, we have come a very long way in the quality and invention of shows created under socially distanced conditions. The success of Staged lies in the strength of its premise feeding through the structural and visual storytelling concept. How quickly Evans and his team have learned to get the most from the technology available, making a virtue of the video calling platforms we are all enduring. The fictionally lethargic Sheen and Tennant (or should that be Tennant and Sheen) might not be first out of the gate with their Pirandello, but while we wait for theatres to reopen, watched slowly or in one sitting, you’ll be glad to share a bit of lockdown with them both.
All six episodes of Staged are available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year or screening on Wednesdays on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog