Even the Luddites among us have been forced to adapt to and ultimately embrace such platforms as Zoom during the lockdown. Connecting us with colleagues and loved ones, such technology has now allowed 14 new plays to be created by a who’s who of British theatre talent. Headlong have teamed up with Century Films to address and respond to the UK lockdown. After airing on BBC4, the digital plays will be available on iPlayer.
As the world has changed practically overnight, we have been saturated by the media’s constant reports on death figures, vaccines and the impending ramifications of the pandemic that are going to ripple through life after lockdown. We’re incredibly fortunate that we live in a world where at the click of a button we can be inundated with an ever-increasing array of entertainment options. Even theatre is being streamed to our front rooms. With such plentiful choice to quench our thirst for escapism, do we really want to watch something that will only remind us of our current reality?
If the first two episodes are anything to go by, the answer is very much yes. We open with Viral, written by James Graham. Over ten minutes we follow three frustrated teenagers on a video call. The boys claim their generation will be “the most screwed from this,” before going on to talk about their age group being responsible for paying off the debt caused by the virus. The pacey play is perfectly pitched, weighing in on pertinent ideas with a blend of authentic adolescent banter. The actors display remarkable chemistry despite the current restrictions in place. There is a mixture of laughter and tears here and it’s invigorating to see young men depicted in such an honest and raw light.
“They never cared about us before. Why now?” This is a point that permeates and lingers long after it’s made in the second play, Penny. Homeless Ray has been moved into a hotel and subsequently separated from his beloved Penny. FaceTiming her, Ray explains that social distancing is nothing new to him. Beautifully performed by Lennie James, this monologue is an angry but controlled piece that puts forward its case and gets out of there quickly, its surprise twist sure to leave a smile on your face.
Safer at Home is undoubtedly one of the strongest offerings of the first two episodes. Anna Maloney’s play tackles another prevalent concern thrown up by the pandemic: domestic abuse. Gemma Arterton is brilliantly understated as a pregnant wife who makes frequently desperate Skype calls to her mother in law, often alongside her husband (played by real life partner Rory Keenan). Behind the false facade of happiness lies an unwavering tension between the couple and we find ourselves quickly gripped by this disturbingly dark story. It is swiftly followed by some light relief with House Party, a humorous look at how the lockdown has forced us to interact with our neighbours for better or worse.
Theatre is often a response to the world in which we live. The art form brings people together, which is the reason why it will be one of the last industries to climb back on its feet. Film can never replicate its intimacy; but Unprecedented succeeds admirably in evoking that sense of togetherness. This comes not just through the heartfelt and poignant storytelling, but also through knowing that this project has been so lovingly created despite all the barriers presented by social distancing. Art and creativity goes on and when it comes down to it, we’re all in this together. Rich and life-affirming.