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Small Screen Lives – Electric Dreams Online Festival

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Abhi Arumbakkam

Director: Yusuf Niaziand

There have been many monologues throughout lockdown, but precious few of them have been live, and it’s the liveness of theatre that many of us are missing. Watching pre-recorded monologues may be entertaining, but there’s no sense of urgency or risk, and instead we become passive consumers. Small Screen Lives attempts to make the audience active participants in its three monologues and one three-hander. However, being active on Zoom creates its own set of problems.

Technological glitches aside, another drawback with Small Screen Lives is that the writing by Abhi Arumbakkam seems dated, and three of the plays are just not funny enough to keep the audience engaged, and as most of the audience is visible, it’s easy to see their reactions. The first play, Om Shanti, about an online meditation class where the instructor is clearly not invested in the task at hand, is reminiscent of a 1980s’ skit. The instructor played by Imelda D’Souza is interrupted by telephone calls and deliverymen while her issues with Zoom have been done to death in other monologues throughout lockdown.

The second play, Fenugreek, starring Sharan Atwal as an online cook teaching us how to make dal is not much better, and again seems plucked out of a sketch show from the 1980s when parodies of morning TV were all the rage. Freedom, about a young Bollywood actor announcing his retirement live on Instagram is better, as the audience is asked to join in by posting messages of support for their idol. Indeed, because actor Sanjay Lago’s Wi-Fi connection was so unreliable, more fun was had in reading these posts that actually listening to our hero’s reasons for shunning the limelight.

Arumbakkam’s best writing comes in the last play, Care Share, where the three actors play three siblings discussing their sick mother over Skype. While Ash and Bharani have moved away from India, Gopal remains, giving palliative care to their mother. He’s resentful that that his sisters are living busy lives in other parts of the world, while they harbour grudges that he was favoured more by their parents because he was the only son. The play feels very human, and the audience sense that they are eavesdropping onto a private conversation. Bravely, director Yusuf Niaziand incorporates long pauses into their conversation, which seem to echo the discord in this family’s life.

Instead of an interval, the audience are split into break-out rooms, and are meant to engage in conversation with each other, as if they were discussing the show in the bar. However, in real life the actors don’t join you at the bar, and so rather than talk of the show we were encouraged to share our own stories about lockdown. This conversation was awkward at times, and so perhaps the actors could lead the discussions more. Or perhaps we are bored of talking about lockdown; do we talk of anything else?

The team behind Small Screen Lives should be commended for bringing liveness back to theatre, but too often the humour in the plays falls flat, despite the commitment by the cast. When Arumbakkam disposes of the jokes to tell a touching story of a family brought together by impending grief, then Small Screen Lives works.

Runs until 10 August 2020

Electric Dreams Online Festival Website

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