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Unprecedented: Episode One – BBC4 and iPlayer

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: James Graham, Charlene James and John Donnelly

Directors: Ola Ince, Holly Race Roughan and Blanche McIntyre

The way we create and consume theatre is diversifying and while venues may not open for some time, BBC4 has enticed a group of writers, directors and actors to contribute lockdown stories to its new series Unprecedented showing over three nights this week. Each edition contains three short plays and monologues written and filmed during this prolonged period of isolation and inspired by the communication platforms keeping us connected.

Given his much-feted appearance on last week’s Question Time advocating for industry investment, appropriately James Graham’s Viral is up first. Directed by Ola Ince using Zoom, this three-hander is a series of calls between best friends Louis, Alex and Tyler who want to create a dance video from their bedrooms that will make their name while discussing the effects of lockdown on their families, their mental health and their future.

The audience is instantly immersed in their lives, the easy friendship of several years credibly brought to life by actors Laurie Kynaston, Archie Madekwe and Stuart Thompson who suggest both the right level of intimacy and occasional moments of tension between people who know each other too well. Across just 12-minutes, Graham’s sweet drama about male friendship also covers the particular frustrations of a generation of A-level students unable to sit their exams, anxiety about Climate Change and paying for the future economic fallout of the pandemic. Yet it remains a very human story full of love, hope and support that ends with an adorable video hug.

Penny by Charlene James is a to camera monologue directed by Holly Race Roughan that looks at the effect of homelessness during the COVID-19 crisis as Ray is given a neat hotel room to sleep in. Addressed to the mysterious Penny, who we learn has been a rock to the protagonist during his time on the streets, James uses the video call format to explore the impact of this new housing policy on Ray’s experience.

“They never cared about us before, why now?” Ray wonders as he fully expects to be thrown back onto the streets when the pandemic is over and notes that the public have been socially distancing from him for years. Performed by Lennie James, as Ray gets more worked-up the worry that everything will change or nothing will change becomes quite affecting, a theme also noted in Graham’s play. The abiding love for Penny is clear and like the Donmar’s Midnight Your Time, the one-way conversation only adds to the sense of loneliness this story creates – the tragedy enhanced by noting his microphone icon is muted throughout so his beloved caller won’t have heard a word.

The final story running at around 8-minutes is Going Forward by John Donnelly set during a large office meeting led by the aggressive Siobhan (Frances Grey) trying to extract information from her colleagues on the development and delivery of vital equipment. Donnelly’s tale will feel amusingly familiar at first with several attendees entering the call late and disrupting the flow, while connection issues and the lack of body language results in people talking over each other.

But things take a sinister turn pretty quickly as disagreeable participants suddenly exit the call and Siobhan’s Orwellian span of control becomes the focus. The pressure to perform in order to deliver on false promises made to the public feeds nicely through Donnelly’s piece as the audience tries to work out who these people are as facts are twisted out of proportion.

Produced by Headlong and Century Films, this delightful anthology will be unmissable viewing for the rest of the week, enjoyable  and meaningful, dissecting the experience of being trapped at home, away from our loved ones and in endless Teams calls. By turns political, funny, moving and heart-warming, it is reassuring to know that our creative world continues to flourish.

Available on BBC iPlayer until  24 June

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