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Unprecedented, Episode 3 – BBC 4 and iplayer

Reviewer: Eve Newstead

Writers: Duncan Macmillan and Prasanna Puwanarajah

Directors: Jeremy Herrin and Brian Hill

Strange, extraordinary, exceptional, unfamiliar, Unprecedented; the language of the times we are living in exemplifies our very inability to give them certain definition. It often feels like we are doggy paddling through this radical change. And, whilst it is surely no life rope, BBC 4, Headlong and Century Films’s Unprecedented offers comfort and reassurance that we should keep kicking. Episode Three aired last night with two new plays, both very different, but sharing the perfect recipe of humour, anger, sadness and humanity, which defined the previous episodes.

Written and produced in lockdown, and shot in homes across the country, the settings and scenes all have a remarkable realness. But really, the authenticity of each story comes from their nuanced explorations of our shared vulnerability. Social media sites and magazines are packed with unrealistic expectations for personal growth during this “holiday”- get a six pack, write a novel, become a yogi master etc. Unprecedented refuses to engage with this narrative. As Katherine Parkinson’s character, in the first of last night’s plays yells: “it is right to be stressed!”

Parkinson stars alongside Alison Steadman and Michael Elwyn in Grounded, playing their daughter who is seething with frustration as the couple refuse to acknowledge the severity of the pandemic and continue to live as normal– “oh but she loves Zumba.” The acting is superb; Parkinson’s shiftiness and hair-tearing stress levels show her yearning to reach through the screen and shake them. Their conversations define the duality of relationships now – connected through a fierce desire to protect and love, yet ultimately separate.

Grounded is written by Duncan Macmillan, and his characteristic skill at capturing humanity is prominent in every moment. The plot twists and turns with the emotions and follies of the characters. The couple’s cruel prank that mum has caught the virus, leaves you wide-eyed with annoyance. This is followed by Parkinson’s angry monologue, berating their generation who “cannot take responsibility for anything” be it the economy, Brexit or “a planet you’ve ruined.” Macmillan can only be applauded for his ability to render these moments funny, anger-inducing, shocking, and truthful all at once. Of course, Parkinson is reminded mum and dad are not actually guilty of these things. And in turn, Macmillan reminds us not to criticise and blame too much – we are all navigating new paths and we are all human.

While mum and dad are unable to see the severity of this pandemic in Grounded, the people in Fear Fatigue, the second play, are unable to escape it. Prasanna Puwanarajah’s piece, directed by Brian Hill, is unique in the Unprecedented line up as it uses a documentary style. Based on recorded conversations with NHS workers, actors Esh Alladi, Natalie Dew, Paterson Joseph, Rory Kinnear, Jodie McNee and Anna Madeley recount their real words, fears and feelings. The result is powerful and urgent. It throws you into the heart of the storm we often only hear about in terms as fact and figures in news.

Accounts of working on the frontline are both frightening and sorrowful. One worker states, “there are going to be patients in there dying… and you can’t let their relatives in there to see them. It’s gonna be [pause] horrific.” Anyone previously refusing or ignorant to the seriousness of the situation will have their minds changed after hearing the devastating voices in this piece. Positivity and the power of community still shine through, and Fear Fatigue ends on an uplifting note. A worker gleefully describes her new role managing “feeding the frontline”- receiving and distributing the enormous amount of food donations coming in for the NHS. Aside from its meaningful affect, it was a relief to watch one of the plays working without Zoom or Facetime as, although realistic, the repetitive ‘can you hear me’ and frozen screens seen throughout the series was becoming tiring.

Unprecedented is a remarkable example of how we can adapt, not just creatively, but across every area of life, when we need to. To try and grasp some comfort, joy and connectedness during this time, turn to these brilliant new plays.

Available here until June 2020

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