Lockdown has inspired some great satirical art. Only yesterday I saw a dog waste bin in my local woods affixed with a picture of Dominic Cummings. Our movements, like those of the dogs of Blean Nature Reserve, may be contained, but our creativity runs free.
In the case of Staged, a six-part BBC One comedy starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen, containment was both inspiration and form. Conceived by Simon Evans and Phin Glyn, the series was made and set during UK lockdown. The episodes were all filmed, by necessity, inside the cast’s homes, and scenes were spliced with stock footage of the two main locations in London and Wales.
Unlike some lockdown TV projects which have been borne forth on a wave of gratitude for the efforts made to keep calm and telly on, Staged is the real deal. It’s perfectly suited to the format and properly funny. Unlike the unwieldy TV shapes admirably and industriously squeezed into new forms over the last few months, Staged comes tailor-made for These Strange Times TM.
In it, actors Tennant and Sheen play themselves, or rather, versions of themselves that send up their fragile, luvvie insecurities. It’s the Curb Your Enthusiasm trick, as also seen in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Self-deprecation meets industry satire meets starry guest names, all glued together with charismatic comedy performance.
Sheen and Tennant’s charisma and chemistry is unimprovable. That much was clear to anybody who saw them lead last year’s Good Omens. As angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley in the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett fantasy comedy, they were elementally good. Their briefest absence from a scene created a vacuum that sucked everything else in, leaving behind the nagging sense that something much more compelling must be going on wherever they were, arguing over a Tunnock’s Tea Cake at the craft service table or doing silly voices in their dressing rooms.
Staged services that nagging sense by giving us Tennant and Sheen behind-the-scenes. Not on a film set (thank you, lockdown), but in their family homes in London and the Welsh countryside.
The premise sees the actors signed up to star in a production of Luigi Pirandello’s classic Italian play ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. Not to be left behind, director Simon [Evans, also Staged’s co-writer and director] decides to continue preparation through video-conferencing rehearsals with his two stars.
It’s a disaster, and gloriously so. Firstly because Michael Sheen (the character) can’t stand Simon Evans (the character). Secondly because it transpires that Sheen wasn’t the first choice for the part. And thirdly, because the director is about as effective in his role as swallowing bleach is in combatting Covid-19. They get nothing done.
Nothing, it turns out, is quite something to watch in this case. Between Sheen and Tennant’s easy repartee and raging spats is a whole landscape of gags and warmth, stupidity and sardonic observation. Despite doing no work, the pair still manage to sustain several injuries to their egos, which are beautifully managed throughout by their co-stars/wives.
Actor Georgia Moffett, who also co-produced the series, is very funny as Tennant’s wry partner. With a smile, she gently bursts the bubble of his vanity while simultaneously managing his vulnerability, their home, food shopping, cooking, five kids, the completion and sale of her novel and at one point, the delivery of a friend’s baby.
Sheen’s wife Anna Lundberg, as it happens also an actor, is seen ministrating to her husband’s increasingly unanchored sense of self. Both men are at sea in lockdown, deprived of their usual status on set and feeling suddenly powerless in the real world.
The selection of guest stars brought in to rub salt into their wounds is delightful and not to be spoiled here (or indeed by reading the ‘Guest Starring’ credit at the start of every episode. If you don’t want to know the scores, look away then.)
Overall, the writing and editing are sharp, the performances are strong, Alex Baranowski’s music has a lovely Jeeves and Wooster-jauntiness to it, and the whole thing zooms along very enjoyably. So much so that it would be a pity to stop at one series. Perhaps another could be the only upside to a second wave forcing us all back inside our homes.
Whether that’s it for Staged or not, one thing is certain. The official list of beloved British comedy double-acts (as carved onto the sacred tablet ceremonially stored in the hidden cave beneath Eric Morecambe’s bay-front statue) has a new entry. Alongside the likes of Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders, Rik and Ade, and both Ronnies now sit the names David Tennant and Michael Sheen.
Or should that be Michael Sheen and David Tennant? Michael Sheen with David Tennant? Sheen featuring Tennant? Let’s not even start on the middle names.