Director: Felicity Montagu
Writers: Henry Filloux-Bennett and Yasmeen Khan
Inspired by the impact of the global pandemic on the theatre industry, comedy Going the Distance looks at the efforts of a community, trying to save its local arts centre.
It is 2020, and we are invited to the Theatre Committee Meeting of Matchborough Community Theatre via Zoom. Chaired by Frank (played by Matthew Kelly), he is joined by Rae (a social media co-ordinator) and the theatre’s Treasurer, Maggie (Penny Ryder, in a terrific performance). Their theatre, like many others, is suffering financially. It has three months of solvency left. Maggie suggests a community production, with open auditions. In a year when the lights went out, Matchborough Community Theatre is determined to, well, go the distance.
The production will be ‘Wizard’ – reminiscent of, but definitely not based on, The Wizard of Oz. Frank and Maggie set about finding their Dorothy, and Rae – without consultation – hires a local playwright. Frank is furious: he and the writer, Vic (Shobna Gulati) have history.
We loiter backstage during rehearsals. Frank’s decision to hire a local celebrity, Billie (a “formerly agent-represented actor”) creates havoc. Played with relish by Nicole Evans, Billie causes further friction between Frank and Vic. The final piece falls into place when local girl Gail (Emma McDonald) auditions. An obvious choice for Dorothy, she is a newcomer to Matchborough and bonds with Maggie, a theatre regular since she was 15 years old.
Directed by Felicity Montagu, while the jokes keep coming, the visual style is kept sophisticated. In key scenes (auditions, meetings) Montagu only lights the characters’ faces. Her theatre in darkness becomes a metaphor not just for economic disparity, but the creative differences running deeper than the immediate text. It is no accident the tensions between Vic and Frank are addressed not in the dark of the auditorium, but in the light of day, by the stage door.
Montagu’s elegant touch is complemented by the screenplay, written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and Yasmeen Khan. Going the Distance’s comedic brand will remind you very much of the television series W1A. As the film’s narrator, Stephen Fry’s handling of nuance is, of course, perfect. Satiric swipes regarding management of the pandemic are reserved for those at the top. The acronyms and jargon that appealed to those grasping at familiarity and routine are treated more gently. Rae (Sarah Badland) is firmly embedded in the language of 2020. She clings to the digital world, even with an in-house project decided.
It is the move from the digital productions that saw us through the early pandemic, into re-aligned, re-imagined theatre that Going the Distance examines. Shobna Gulati’s character asks if we should prepare ourselves for the fact that everything – theatre included – will be changed by this experience. In the final scenes, Montagu films Gail in close-up, singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It is a filmic and theatrical moment. The power of performance, a single voice, suggesting some elements are immutable.
Available here until 17 October 2021