BWW Review: UNPRECEDENTED - EPISODE ONE, BBC iPlayer
A week before lockdown was announced, some of our greatest playwrights were asked to write stories exploring every aspect of human life and interaction during the coronavirus pandemic. As part of BBC Arts' Culture in Quarantine initiative (partnering with Headlong and Century Films), the plays were filmed and produced during lockdown, with all 14 plays now available on BBC iPlayer. Episode One takes three very different situations and begins with the most successful of the three; James Graham's Viral.
Directed by Ola Ince, this very natural and believable story captures three teenage boys lamenting the sudden end of school and contemplating creating the next big viral dance trend on TikTok. In ten short minutes, the cast create a thought-provoking, funny and deeply sensitive story, touching on family, friendship and typical teenage concerns about sexuality, exams and the future.
Laurie Kynaston, so excellent last year in Florian Zeller's The Son, plays Tyler, lounging in his dressing gown at first, but going on to confront the terrible reality of the pandemic when his grandmother becomes gravely ill. Archie Madekwe is brilliant as the enthusiastic Louis, jumping on anything to distract himself from the current situation. Stuart Thompson is Alex - seemingly laidback and unaffected by events, but showing hidden depths in a beautifully crafted scene where he suddenly reveals the truth about his sexuality to his friends.
Graham deftly highlights events where the boys desperately need connection with each other, and how they manage to support, tease and encourage each other through video. Their chemistry is effortless and completely convincing.
This is followed by Charlene James's Penny, a touching monologue performed by Lennie James exploring the experience of a homeless man who has just been given a place in a hotel to stay during the pandemic. Sitting on the end of a bed in an anonymous-looking bedroom, he speaks directly to Penny, who is unseen at first.
James is heartbreakingly convincing as a man confused and upset by his current situation and questioning when he can see his beloved Penny again. It is clear that she is his world, his best friend in his difficult life and a stabilising presence when things get tough. As Penny is finally revealed, his situation and love for her becomes even more poignant.
For those who have had enough of Zoom calls in their real life, the prospect of watching more Zoom calls and dialogue on the television will be unappealing. Indeed, the now-familiar 'Can you hear me?' and 'Sorry, you've frozen' seems to echo in our sleep these days. Going Forward, written by John Donnelly, shows a very realistic version of the stilted conversation, unreliable internet and lack of personal connection that can occur during the communal experience of a work meeting.
Featuring 12 actors, the meeting is hosted by the prickly Siobhan, who disconnects colleagues, one by one, as they fail to give her guarantees about the mass production of an unnamed machine that their company is responsible for.
As Siobhan, Frances Grey captures the acute frustration at the slowing down of the supply chain, blaming all her team, rather than showing any tolerance or understanding. Grey is very good at portraying a person under great pressure, unable to find solutions and desperate for answers. However, the intensity of the situation for all involved is not comfortable viewing.
Unprecedented is a brilliant initiative that seeks to explore pockets of our lives and connections at this time. Episode One is a great start.