With all theatres closed and social distancing the required norm, playmakers have had to rapidly adapt and find new ways of presenting their work. Headlong Theatre are no exception and have risen to the challenge with Unprecedented a collaboration with Century Films on 14 short plays featuring over 50 actors. The project was “conceived, written, filmed and produced in lockdown. Rehearsals took place over Zoom; props, costumes, lighting and set were sourced or made by the cast themselves, and the series was shot in homes across the country using digital conferencing technology”. The end results are now being broadcast on BBC iPlayer as a series of five programmes.
Most of the plays are about ten minutes in duration and punch well above their weight featuring writing by the likes of James Graham and April de Angelis and directed by, among others, Jeremy Herrin and Blanche McIntyre. The pieces range from farcical comedy to domestic drama, from creepy monologue to (very) mini musical. One of the most interesting, Fear Fatigue, is a (double length) take on verbatim theatre using the words of front line medical staff to paint their own frightening tale as they describe a system in free fall. At least five of the plays embody the most consistent theme which emerges, that of families and cross generational attitudes as parents fret about their children and children worry about their aging parents. Other areas examined are the effects on those who are homeless and disabled, disenfranchised students, working life and relationships.
Many of the pieces make use of the technology with which we have all become oh so familiar (Zoom, Skype, etc) to get distanced characters interacting and there are many all too recognisable moments as things glitch, videos suddenly go dark and the sound crackles. In the work conferencing satire, Going Forward, these moments are deliberately used to shut down any dissenters from the boss’ stated purpose. While all this is very much of the moment, watching too many of the pieces back to back does reveal that this “go to” scenario gets a bit samey.
That said, here are five of the playlets (in no particular order) that were particularly enjoyable
- Safer at Home by Anna Maloney features Gemma Arterton and real-life partner Rory Keenan in a disturbing and tautly tense tale about domestic abuse which gradually reveals itself to anxious mother in law Geraldine James. This manages to pack as much into a few brief minutes as many series do in the same number of hours; it is haunting and compelling
- Grounded by Duncan Macmillan has another real-life partnership of an overly cheery Alison Steadman and Michael Elwyn who blithely ignore lockdown restrictions. They carry on attending Zumba classes and hosting a party much to the consternation of their daughter Katherine Parkinson who cannot deal with all the pressure this causes. Parkinson’s rant speaks for many of us at this difficult time
- Everybody’s Talkin’ by Chloe Moss is also based on the differing attitudes adopted by a widowed mother, Sue Johnston, and her three concerned daughters Denise Gough, Rebekah Staton and Rochenda Sandall. Johnson’s cry from the heart that all she wants is human contact will touch a nerve for many
- Kat and Zaccy by Deborah Bruce contains more generational pressure as Monica Dolan uses all her wiles to get son Alex Lawther to come home and relieve her loneliness. However, he wants to stay at university – at least that’s what he says. Dolan, as ever, is brilliant at capturing her character in just a few short minutes; a woman who is both angry, frightened and just a bit manipulative
- House Party by April De Angelis sees a group of neighbours gathered together to socialise online at a “party” hosted by Meera Syal. The guests include Cecilia Noble, Fenella Woolgar and, briefly, James Norton but nobody really seems to be in the mood. The piece skewers some middle-class pretensions and quickly reveals why most of these neighbours have assiduously avoided each other prior to lockdown. Woolgar has a particularly fine moment in a mix up over a certain make of Swedish car
As may be evident from the above list there are a whole roster of good actors who appear – Rory Kinnear, Kathryn Hunter and Julian Barrett also feature. Generally, the strongest performers are the ladies but as they are a list to die for and the writing tends to favour their characters that is hardly surprising. Like ITV’s recent Isolation Stories* (still available on the ITV Hub) these short pieces will provide valuable testimony for what people got up to in the great pandemic which, on this evidence, was slowly to fall apart.