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Unprecedented: Episode 2 -BBC4 and iPlayer

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Tim Price, Anna Maloney and April De Angelis

Director: Jeremy Herrin, Brian Hill and Holly Race Roughan

The exciting series of mini-plays produced by BBC Arts, Headlong Theatre Company and Century Films continues with three more star-studded stories on how we are dealing with life under quarantine. Two of the second episode’s plays are very good indeed, while the other, as we approach our third month of lockdown, seems a little dated.

By now we have seen many skits on how problematic Zoom or other online video conferencing software can be. People talking when they are muted, or people talking at the same time are just two examples of problems faced when using Zoom, and even TV commercials have comically highlighted these faux-pas. And so it’s a little disappointing that the first few minutes of Tim Price’s Romantic Distancing spends time on exploring these hitches that, by now, are familiar to a good number of us working from home.

When the play eventually reveals its narrative, it becomes more interesting. Arthur Darvill plays a musician talking to his girlfriend over Zoom. He’s a little annoying, and overeager, and quite quickly you wonder what his girlfriend, played by Inès de Clercq, sees in him. She finds these meetings a drag, and they only make her feel more lonely and so she begins the awkward process of dumping him online. Darvill writes a song, and it’s uncertain whether Price wants us to laugh at this or not – it’s decidedly not funny – and even though de Clercq has clearly finished the relationship does Price expect the audience to sympathise with a man who won’t take ‘no’ as an answer?

Domestic violence is the subject of the second play, Safer at Home, by Anna Maloney where Gemma Arterton plays a pregnant woman stuck in lockdown with her controlling husband. With the use of music, and short tense scenes, Maloney’s play, directed by Brian Hill, is chilling and claustrophobic. The incomparable Geraldine James plays Ellie’s mother-in-law, Zooming in from the other side of town, and throughout the electric ten minutes you are willing her to realise what her son is doing.

The last play, House Party, by April De Angelis is also ten minutes long, but is the most accomplished of the three managing to be both comedy and tragedy as neighbours come together online to chat and play games. Meera Syal is the host on the video conferencing app House Party, quite unprepared for the reactions of her nearby community. Fenella Woolgar is drinking the dregs of bottles of crème de menthe to keep herself sane, while real life partners Olivia Williams and Rashan Stone play a bickering couple, she showing off her yoga moves while he drinks illicit alcohol on the toilet. Soon the app’s grid is busy with people.

De Angelis’ play is riotous, but also very moving, especially when Cecilia Noble joins the online party, not quite getting into the spirit of things. Her character along with Woolgar’s demonstrate that some people cope less well with these virtual meetings and their forced conviviality that have become so common in these unprecedented times. And yet, someone is always late to the party, and there is a corker of a cameo in the last seconds of De Angelis’s sparkling drama.

With two more episodes to air, and with some more plays only available on the BBC iPlayer, Unprecedented has become the first must-see of lockdown.

Runs until here until June 2020

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