Staged, review: BBC One’s thespian comedy nails the quirks of life under lockdown

Michael Sheen and David Tennant revel in self-parody throughout six bite-sized episodes 

Louis Chilton
Wednesday 10 June 2020 18:04
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Staged clip: David Tennant and Michael Sheen on homeschooling

The British TV industry has been hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic: production has ground to a halt on nearly all scripted series. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Michael Sheen, David Tennant, and writer-director Simon Evans, who have come together to create a new six-part comedy filmed entirely within lockdown.

In Staged, produced for BBC One, Tennant and Sheen whittle down the border between reality and fiction, playing exaggerated versions of themselves who are stuck at home during quarantine. The pair – who appeared together last year in Amazon’s Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett adaptation Good Omens – have arranged to co-star in a play, a fictional production of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 work Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Egged on by their director (played by Evans), the thespians try to conduct video rehearsals for Six Characters, hoping to emerge post-lockdown as West End frontrunners. Thanks to the foibles of video communication, and their own oversized egos, this proves easier said than done. Other smaller roles are occupied ably by actors such as Adrian Lester, Georgia Tennant, Lucy Eaton and Anna Lundberg, but, make no mistake, Staged is built on the bullish chemistry between its two leads.

It’s an indulgent premise, albeit less so for its brevity – its six episodes last around quarter of an hour each. Staged has a lot in common with Sky’s The Trip, which also focused on the rambling, passive-aggressive conversations between two actors, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, playing similarly exaggerated versions of themselves.

Like The Trip’s bickering stars, Sheen and Tennant both pass the time mulling over the minutiae of their own conversations, and enjoy launching into a variety of accents and pseudo-celebrity impressions (such as Tim Burton and Dylan Thomas). Considering the length of its episodes, though, Staged is not so much a Trip as a microdose.

Of course, given its locked-down premise, it inevitably lacks The Trip’s entertaining travel elements; scenes in Staged can feel a bit static at times. The dialogue is playfully theatrical in its use of language – as you might expect, Sheen and Tennant wring every last soupcon of satisfaction from phrases like “meaty timbre” and “bacchanalian embarrassment”. It’s also enjoyably foul-mouthed – one of the biggest laughs of the series comes from a cleverly abbreviated deployment of the word “c***”. Sheen and Tennant appear frayed and pugnacious after weeks spent in lockdown; their arguments stem from cabin fever as much as any inherent rivalry.

Much of the comedy is observational, derived from the specific topical frustrations of video-messaging chats: talking over each other on group calls, lost connections, the flash of awkwardness when no one can locate a ringing phone. As the series goes on, it tries to grapple with the darker realities of coronavirus, but there’s only so much room for ambition when you’re filming a series over video chat. It’s hard to imagine that many people will return to Staged when the pandemic is a distant memory, that its jokes about Zoom, or lockdown drinking habits, will still land. For now, though, it’s a welcome distraction, an eminently watchable portrait of two artists as petulant, egotistical children.

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