Writers: Amy Guyler, Olu Alakija, Nathan Ellis, Emteaz Hussain, and Alan Bennett
Directors: Adam Penford, and Matthew Xia,
‘This still life is all I ever do / But it’s still, still life’ Suede sang in 1994 and that dual premise is the focus of Nottingham Playhouse’s new collection of short films which looks at the lives of ordinary citizens in the last 12 months. Written by Amy Guyler, Olu Alakija, Nathan Ellis, Emteaz Hussain and Alan Bennett this 50-minute anthology is an insightful community project, capturing a range of everyday stories and the untold experiences of the pandemic.
Based on interviews with local people and pitched as a time capsule project to reflect the moment we live in, Still Life: Untold Stories from Nottingham Now begins with one of the strongest and most moving films, Guyler’s Out of Stock, a monologue staged as a documentary film-crew being taken round a canteen-style kitchen. This 20-minute drama skilfully explores the impact of enforced closures and social distancing on the politics of foodbanks and homelessness, while carefully developing the central character’s personal story of loss and care for others. Beautifully staged by director Adam Penford, Julie Hesmondhalgh delivers a riveting and moving performance as the kindly café volunteer while Guyler’s writing builds a low sense of personal and community tragedy as the piece unfolds.
Other films have an equally serious message including Olu Alakija’s Handle With Care that follows two delivery drivers who stop for lunch and find themselves troubled by one of the calls that morning. Played by Conor Glean and Karl Haynes, Luke and Sam are opposites flung together on this one occasion by the absence of Sam’s regular partner. Like Guyler’s piece, these characters seem to have a life beyond the 8-minutes we spend with them and Alakija uses their slightly awkward relationship to construct an interesting debate on the ethics of intervention while exploring the empathetic and generational differences between the men.
The big coup in the collection is Alan Bennett’s 4-minute sketch entitled Muriel, performed by Frances de la Tour which adds a darker element to Still Life as a widow rehearsing her Zoom memorial speech for deceased husband George while putting on her make-up. It is a rich world that Bennett creates in under 5-minutes as Muriel reflects on her marriage and the many faces of the man she knew – but to undercut the maudlin concept, Bennett has a blackly comic trick up his sleeve.
The final two stories are dramatically and narratively a little weaker although they also tackle rarely considered subjects. Nathan Ellis’ Facts puts an 11-year-old girl at the centre of his story, encapsulating her experience of the last year in a recitation of facts including home schooling, missing friends and the false promises of a better future. It has a lovely performance from Amelia Harding but over 8-minutes the count from 1 to 82 becomes too repetitive, slowing the pace as some of the detail is lost in the endless tally.
Emteaz Hussain’s Pimp My Ride may be the most controversial story as a hygiene-obsessed Uber driver takes a student to the train station during lockdown so she can visit her father. Performed by Esh Alladi and Jessica Temple, the dialogue becomes a little didactic, opposing rants about risky student behaviour from driver Shaq with defence from customer Lauren, but the scenario never fully creates the context around the characters to make these arguments seem equally valid.
But collectively, Still Life: Untold Stories from Nottingham Now makes the point that life has both paused and continued, that the problems that existed before the pandemic are still there, may even been exacerbated, while new difficulties have sprung up for everyone. An important reflection on the current position, Nottingham Playhouse has proved Suede right – it’s still life.
Runs here until 12 May 2021