BWW Review: UNPRECEDENTED - EPISODE 2, BBC IPlayer
The second instalment of Unprecedented, BBC iPlayer/BBC Four's series of short new plays, takes full advantage of the fact that actors often date other actors and are therefore locked down with someone they can film with. We saw this briefly in episode one, where Saoirse-Monica Jackson and Laurie Kynaston played siblings (and we'll see more examples in the episodes to come), but in this instalment, all three plays make good use of both members of a locked-down-together couple, and in very different ways.
The first play, Romantic Distancing, by Tim Price, sees Arthur Darvill and Ines De Clerq play a pairing who had only just started dating when lockdown began. They then attempt to navigate the perilous and awkward path of early dates with the added obstacles of distance and unreliable technology.
The performers do a great job at highlighting the challenges of trying to figure out whether or not there is a romantic connection with a new date you can't be co-present with. They convey the mixture of awkwardness, hope and frustration their characters are feeling really well. The metaphor of technology problems representing the communication problems between the two is perhaps a little over-egged; the play would work just as well without so many failures in the technology. I won't give away spoilers about what happens, but Darvill's character is a musician and the piece includes a song he wrote - after all, if you have the talent in your cast, you might as well use it!
The second piece, Safer at Home by Anna Maloney, is by far the heaviest of the three, and explores one of the most important, and difficult, issues of the lockdown: being stuck at home in an abusive relationship. Pregnant Elly (Gemma Arterton) and husband Mike (Rory Keenan) are shown calling Mike's mother Betty (Geraldine McEwan) in what appear to be run-of-the-mill catch-ups, but when Betty is off the call, we learn that Mike is incredibly controlling over Elly and that being locked down with him might not be the safest place for her.
We see Elly beginning to struggle more and more with the impact of the situation as time passes and Betty's concerns begin to grow. Keenan is skin-crawlingly good as Mike, whose control over both wife and mother is chillingly charming, whilst McEwan's huge glasses highlight the way her eyes change from cheerful to concerned over time. Arterton puts in a great performance, which also uses subtle hair and make-up changes to show how her character becomes increasingly fragile. It is a short, sharp snapshot of what many people will be going through at this time.
Whilst Zoom has been the platform of choice for most of the Unprecedented stories so far, with the BBC's need to be impartial, we do see other technologies creeping in as well. Episode 1 featured Skype, and this episode closes out with House Party by April De Angelis, a play set on the app of the same name (or a variation on it, anyway).
Boasting the largest cast of the episode, including big names like Fenella Woolgar (and her real-life son) and Meera Syal, it's based on a group of middle-aged friends who meet up for awkward party games over the app. Real-life actor couple Olivia Williams and Rhashan Stone play an actor and his long-suffering wife, who complains about being married to an actor (very meta!).
It's by far the silliest of the episode's plays, with drunken antics, awkward conversations and (literal) toilet humour. The piece does a good job at replicating the slightly awkward and uncomfortable moments of group calls, but I thought they could have pushed the game aspect of House Party a bit further and really pushed for more cringe-inducing laughs.
It doesn't go far enough in making us laugh while we wince, and whilst there are one or two hints at something more serious beneath the 'jolly' surface for a couple of characters, these don't have the punch they maybe could. There's amusement to be had in watching the familiar faces playing various stages of drunk awkwardness, but the piece ultimately falls a little flat, and is, for me, the weakest of the opening two episodes.
Still, within the space of half an hour we've travelled through the genres of rom-com-musical, serious domestic drama and drunken farce, which is quite a feat! There are still eight plays to come, across three episodes, and given the diverse settings we've had this far, I'm looking forward to seeing where we go next.