When I reviewed the first series of Staged back in June, I did admit to a bending of the rules to allow it to count in these pages. I’m about to bend them again, and even further, so if you’re of a temperament that abhors that kind of thing then look away now. This tale of theatrical life in lockdown has returned for a second crack of the whip and premiered on the same day that the PM announced the latest curtailment of liberty – an appropriate piece of serendipity that could not have worked more in the programme’s favour.
Staged2 is a slightly longer series than the first which, more or less, retains the same premise. Frustrated thesps Michael Sheen and David Tennant are still holed up at home but just about to return to “normal” life. However, the pandemic rules keep changing, meaning that anticipated trips to film abroad have to be cancelled last minute and other plans torn up. Word reaches them that the series they filmed last time round is about to be remade in America following its popular UK success so that would seem to be the answer. Except that word also reaches them that the show is about to be recast – possibly with Colin Firth and Hugh Grant – because the two of them are not high profile enough for the US. Cue much Celtic huffing and puffing from the outraged duo who then volunteer to stay close to the project… but only so that gives them an opportunity to sabotage it.
Noted for its meta-theatricality first time round, Staged2 has, if anything, become even more convoluted with a greater number of folds than a piece of origami. The pair claim that Simon Evans (who also returns) didn’t so much write series one as provide an outline around which they riffed in order to make it the success it was. He’s having none of it and has decamped to the States to supervise the remake. However, as Tennant and Sheen were playing souped up versions of themselves (or were they? Yes, it’s that kind of show) their input is still vital. And so, they find themselves pairing up with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, followed by a roster of A list “names” who are mooted to be taking over from them in order to do some coaching into the roles. There are some very funny scenes constructed around this premise and there’s also fun to be had in seeing who pops up next. Sheen and Tennant continue to use the situation to try and outdo the other; I did smile at the notion that the former was once up for Doctor Who, but they decided to “go in a different direction” said meaningfully while he stared at the latter. The deployment of Tennant’s various acting awards countered by the introduction of Sheen’s baby is another delicious moment. Eventually the two become united against a common enemy (everyone else) to the point where they cannot bear to part even though they are at a considerable physical distance; the closing moments of the series become inevitable.
If I’m being honest, I think the joke went on for a bit too long this time round and started to wear rather thin because it really wasn’t developing. Instead, we get a parade of star names some playing themselves, some playing heightened versions of themselves and some playing other characters from the narrative; it certainly keeps the viewer on their collective toes. The attempt to cram in so many surprise guests seems like nothing so much as a blatant attempt to curry favour with the American market (and thus has the show cleverly commenting upon itself) but some of the original essence has clearly been lost. A subplot involving Tennant and Sheen’s partners and Evans’ sister does little to restore the balance and essentially ends up going nowhere.
As before the devil is in the detail and Sheen and Tennant (I’m making sure I keep reversing the billing here) throw themselves into the fun with absolute abandon and release some invective worthy of the legendary Malcolm Tucker. It is the scenes between just them which are really the heart of the piece and, to my mind anyway, negated the need to bring in others trying to play them – partly the point they are supposedly making of course. Is it all highly improvised or highly scripted? Who knows and does it really matter? Last time round I advocated a binge watch, but I think on this occasion a more casual drip feed might pay dividends and stop the repetitions being quite so obvious. I hope they don’t go on for a third series if only because this is a show that was of its moment last time round but seems somewhat out of step on this second throw of the dice. A third time would stretch the joke beyond breaking point and I’d rather remember it for the triumph it was than watch it descend into “meh” status. Besides in all conscience, I really can’t cheat for a third time… can I?
Staged2 is available via BBC iPlayer along with the first series. Click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)