While, for the most part, the pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster for all of those in the performing arts, there have been some memorable lockdown productions that would not otherwise have appeared, due to the commitments of the performers.
That is almost certainly the case with Simon Evans’s six-part comedy for the BBC, Staged. Although it is presented in paired quarter-hour episodes on BBC1, the comedy can be viewed on iPlayer either as a series of half-hour programmes or a 90- to 100-minute presentation.
The plot is simple enough, with each of the actors playing versions of themselves. Before the pandemic hit, Simon Evans, who not only scripted the show but directs it and is one of the stars, was about to put on a stage production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Desperately trying to mask his disappointment, Evans attempts to sell the idea of continuing the project via ZOOM to two of his leading actors, old friends David Tennant and Michael Sheen. In taking this forward, the trio are aided by the former’s wife Georgia, the latter’s partner Anna Lundberg, Simon’s sister Lucy Eaton and assorted friends from outside their bubbles.
Each episode of what might have better been christened “two Hamlets in search of a project” commences and closes with an absurd conversation between the two Celts about odd aspects of their respective national cultures, before getting into the running plot.
Episode one largely comprises an introduction, combined with the efforts of Evans and Tennant to sell the idea to the reluctant Welshman, who is off with the birds, creating a new persona as an artist and bemoaning the fate of theatres.
At times though, Staged can feel like a lockdown sitcom merged with reality TV show taking place in the homes of the celebs rather than a serious look at the difficulties faced by the theatre as viewed through the medium of a postponed Pirandello.
At others, viewers get a glimpse of the issues that concern thespian types. For example, in episode three, Evans finds himself compromised by innate weakness after effectively offering the same role to two distinguished actors, allowing a very funny cameo appearance from the USA by Samuel L Jackson, while subsequently a similar, unresolved plotline involves Adrian Lester.
Viewers also have a chance to eavesdrop on an ego-plagued, staged rehearsal, which may be heightened but is a real eye-opener, even if there tends to be an excess of agonised navel-gazing from all of the major players.
Intermittently, Nina Sosanya also has her moments as frustrated and distrustful producer Jo, while in the final episode there is a delectable miniature from Dame Judi Dench.
All of this is gently amusing for the most part and occasionally laugh out loud funny with particular appeal to fans of the stars, offering a glimpse into their personalities and homes.
The proof of this pudding may eventually be in the eating, since this critic can’t wait to see Tennant and Sheen in the West End performing Pirandello’s classic, with Jackson, Dame Judi et al in support.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher