We bid a welcome – if somewhat unexpected – return to our television screens of Staged, the virtual-based sitcom which only came about through life giving us extremely infectious lemons, which were turned into darkly comical lemonade by writer and director Simon Evans, along with David Tennant and Michael Sheen (final billing to be determined), and their partners, Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg.
The early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020 led to a huge shift in the public’s everyday lives, with working from home now becoming the norm for millions of people. Actors and others working in the creative industries suddenly found their careers taking an unexpected pause, with production of TV shows, plays and movies screeching to a halt while taking stock of the situation, and assessing how best to actually get the ball rolling again.
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Things took an unplanned hiatus as the world held its breath amidst all the chaos and turmoil; even the ubiquitous soaps started to run out of episodes, with some people joking that we had finally got to the end of the first series of EastEnders. However, the public’s clamour for bread and circuses became even more vital than ever, with entertainment becoming an increasingly important part of our shared escapism from the horrors of the outside world.
With hours of airtime to fill, and pre-recorded programming drying up, it was time to rise to the current challenge, hence the need for shows to be filmed with plexiglass screens being used, or with actors and presenters being socially distanced. A rather nimble development, borne wholly out of necessity being the mother of invention, was Staged, which saw Sheen and Tennant playing exaggerated versions of themselves, as they struggled with the rigours of lockdown, and the effect it had on their family lives.
Actors are people too, and as well as providing us 15-minute slices of diversion and laughter, along with keeping Tennant and Sheen busy, it helped us process our own feelings about just what was going on, from boredom to despair, futility to frustration, and the various challenges of parents suddenly having to become ersatz teachers. It was all highly relatable stuff, and in being a mirror as well as a window on our world, it acted as a sort of pressure valve, telling us it was still okay to laugh in the face of adversity.
Staged was one of those series which had perfectly captured the mood and spirit of the time, and had seemed destined to burn brightly and then be gone just as swiftly. After all, it was a look at all the travails of lockdown life, and seeing as how it was a temporary situation, that unique set of circumstances was highly unlikely to repeat itself: things would slowly start to return to some semblance of normality, and we would put the experience far behind us.
Truth, however, is often far stranger than fiction, so with no end in realistic prospect as the days and weeks went on, and the reality of things started to take hold, a second season of Staged went into production. In a bizarre and unpredictable twist of fate, the opening episode just happened to premiere a few short hours after Boris Johnson informed the nation we were going back into lockdown. A case of a PR coup thanks to timing that money simply cannot buy.
But how do you top a blistering first run? Would they be able to keep it fresh and new, and avoid retreading old ground in pursuit of all-important laughs? Well, in a rather astonishing and impressive turn of events, the Staged team managed to take things to the next level, turning the show into a critique of itself. Yes, in this outing, Staged is recognised as being a TV show, and it becomes the focus of the second season, in a beautifully meta twist, which makes it all feel reinvigorated, and gives it a new energy.
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This time around, Sheen, Tennant, et al. are celebrating the success of Staged as a real highlight of the lockdown, and a remake for the American market is underway, headed up by Simon. However, things soon start to go quickly awry, when it turns out that the two co-leads are to in fact be recast, due to their not being big enough ‘names’ for a US audience. Far more galling is the later revelation that everybody else from the BBC version will be returning, leaving Sheen and Tennant well and truly out in the cold.
The joy of the original season’s central conceit was in seeing not only the stars of the show portraying overblown takes on themselves, but also all of the various guests who appeared throughout, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Dame Judi Dench. For the latest batch of episodes, the ante has been well and truly upped, with the amount of celebs making appearances being quite mind boggling for what is essentially still a very modest production, and makes your jaw drop progressively further with each new instalment.
It would be unfair to blow the identities of many of the guest stars, as the fun here is in seeing all your expectations being progressively confounded, and the names just keep getting bigger and ever more unlikely. It all goes to show how many people really are game to mock themselves varying degrees, or just play the role of ‘straight man’ opposite an increasingly manic or despondent Tennant and/or Sheen, as things begin to slowly unravel for the pair, being faced with the notion of apparently more famous people playing them.
Back in the golden years of Hollywood, MGM would proudly proclaim that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”, a major boast which Staged could arguably rival here. One of the sheer delights of the programme has been in seeing the rug pulled out from beneath the viewers, particularly in the way certain people are portrayed; one of the biggest twists comes early on, when one of the reputedly nicest folk you could ever hope to meet is here painted as quite brutal and quietly rather vicious, which is a deliciously shocking turn of events.
As before, Tennant and Sheen are clearly having an absolute blast in mercilessly sending both themselves and each other up throughout, finding evermore inventive ways to make the other squirm; the new twist here is that they have to try and distinguish between the earlier season’s ‘character’ versions of themselves, which were exaggerated takes on both leads, and the ‘real’ versions being presented in this run, which are still fictionalised personas, yet need to stand apart from the original performances for the joke to work.
Staged manages to yet again provide us with a snapshot of our nation in microcosm, capturing the state of play where we all thought things were creeping back to some normality, only to find we are going back to where we were before, the cycle playing out all over again. If there is any criticism to be raised – albeit minor – then it would be the reduced amount of screen time for both Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg compared to last time round, as they add an extra dynamic; however, when they do appear here, they definitely make it count.
If this is to be Staged’s last stand – and it would be difficult to see how they could go above and beyond what they have done here for a potential third time round – then it would be truly going out on top. The programme has proved itself yet again to be a high point during a period which has been well and truly cachu hwch.
Staged Series 1 & 2 are available now on BBC iPlayer and on DVD from 15th February.