All the world’s a stage. Unless, that is, you happen to be in lockdown during the middle of a global pandemic, in which case the best you can probably hope for is a Zoom chat. It’s the core idea behind Staged, the six-part BBC One comedy which stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen. Or Michael Sheen and David Tennant.
We’re living through a situation which is unprecedented in our lifetimes, and everything we know has changed to such a major extent that everyday living seems to be almost an unrecognisable thing compared to just a few short months ago. Every industry has been severely impacted, including that business we call show, with TV and movie production having ground to a virtual standstill, and theatres having long since dimmed their lights and sat empty.
Enter Staged, a TV series which not only wouldn’t but also couldn’t have been made in any other situation. It’s given a snapshot or time capsule of this almost unreal era we’re all living through, where everything has needed to drastically changed practically overnight, with both home working and homeschooling unexpectedly becoming part of the day-to-day routine for many people. Instead of making a drama out of a crisis, however, Staged has made a comedy.
Staged’s writer and director, Simon Evans, had been about to commence rehearsals for a new production of the Tom Stoppard play The Real Thing at Chichester Festival Theatre when the pandemic hit, and it was swiftly cancelled. It was casually suggested to Evans by the artistic director perhaps some basic rehearsals for the play could be done via Skype or Zoom, as a way of finding a workable solution to keeping things going.
This notion was thought to be the germ of a good idea for something by Phin Glynn, a writer Evans had worked with on a feature film, the production of which also came to a halt in March. Glynn happened to have worked with David Tennant in the past, so the duo mooted the concept with him, in the hope of securing not only Tennant’s services, but also those of his Good Omens co-star Michael Sheen, through Tennant raising the idea with him.
Staged has taken these real-life events and used them as the basic premise of a similar – albeit fictional – scenario in which Evans (playing himself) was to be the director of a West End production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author starring Tennant and Sheen, only to have things fall apart as Coronavirus took hold. Evans tries to keep things together by having the two actors rehearse virtually through video conferencing.
The central conceit of Staged comes from having Tennant and Sheen playing exaggerated versions of themselves, as well as including their real-life partners, Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg, both of whom are also actors. It’s not the first time that David and Georgia Tennant have played themselves, as they had participated in the Peter Davison (father-in-law of David, father of Georgia) comedy short The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013.
It’s by no means an original idea to have actors portraying fictionalised versions of themselves, with it cropping up in everything from Ricky Gervais’ Extras (which had featured such luminaries as Patrick Stewart, Daniel Radcliffe and Les Dennis), to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon starring in The Trip. However, it’s seldom been done quite so engagingly as it is here, as despite all the playing up of monstrous egos which is the typical cliche, you also feel as though you do get a glimpse behind all that at the real them.
Staged manages to show a realistic, believable depiction of life in lockdown, capturing all of the boredom which comes with the humdrum repetition of following the same routine ad infinitum, with no sign of things changing anytime soon. The listlessness, as well as a creeping lack of motivation, is not only palpable but credible, and highly relatable to many people going through the exact same thing, being stuck on that seemingly endless treadmill.
One of the episodes talks about the artifice of acting, and in Staged you do get a feeling of this being true. Beyond these poor players strutting and fretting in their thespian manner, there’s a valuable reminder that actors are real people too, with the same travails and tribulations as all those viewers at home watching. Both Tennant and Sheen households have recently seen new arrivals, so there’s the all-too familiar need to try and juggle familial duties with professional ones.
It’s certainly useful to see the lives of stars and celebrities de-mystified in this manner, as it feels very intimate and reminds us we’re all in this together, with no-one being insulated or excluded from the effects of Covid-19. Use of stock footage, giving us a glimpse of the outside world to link between scenes, shows the reality of what’s going on behind the confines of our four walls, without overplaying it or focusing on any negative facets.
In fact, Staged is clever in not actually directly referencing the pandemic by name, thereby distancing itself from any fears it might be trivialising a grave situation, and allowing us to laugh freely at the comedy unfolding before us, which is admittedly extremely funny. The fact that Tennant and Sheen have such a good rapport in real life means that they can clearly relish sending themselves and each other up, as well as tearing into each other.
Not only does it give them a chance to let rip by playing the worst versions of themselves, but also incorporate the very worst traits which they’ve no doubt seen displayed in others within the acting profession, with all the teeming bombast and braggadocio you might expect. Both Tennant and Sheen seem to be genuinely nice people with positive reputations, so there’s great joy in seeing their gentle ribbing laden with uncharacteristic venom beneath the surface.
One of the best running gags comes with the wrangling of the duo over the order of billing for the play, something which cleverly spills over into the credits of each episode. For such an ad hoc production, being put together in such challenging circumstances and working around restricted facilities, it’s remarkable that they’ve actually managed to assemble such an impressive guest cast, with Adrian Lester, Samuel L. Jackson and Dame Judi Dench all game to gently parody themselves.
Although Tennant and Sheen are the leads, the standout stars of Staged are Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg. Both of them are working mothers, and with quiet resolve and patience they get on with the tasks of keeping their households ticking over, while at the same time trying to wrangle their spouses and manage them through their various outbreaks of artistic temperament, dealing with their neuroses and keeping insecurities in check, giving a gently satiric study not only of actors, but also about the fragility of the male ego.
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The level of care and attention to detail goes all the way through to the selection of Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author being the play which the actors are supposedly participating in; Pirandello’s piece is about an acting troupe whose rehearsals are subject to interruption from outside influences, which mirrors the turn of events in the show. It’s joyous to see Tennant and Sheen contributing their own fair share of diversions, as they realise the only audience they have in this adversity is each other.
With the lockdown hopefully coming to an end, it’s sad to think that there’s no scope for any more of Staged, as life starts back to normal; however, perhaps its limited, Mayfly existence is for the best, as you wouldn’t want the joke to outstay its welcome, and consequently seem less pertinent. In equal measures funny, insightful and also unexpectedly touching, Staged has been eminently bingeworthy viewing and a true television highlight.