September 23, 2020

Theater Review: ‘Staged’ and ‘Talking Heads’

Can we add Michael Sheen and David Tennant to the list of defining double-acts of our time? That’s one response to the giddy pleasures of “Staged,” a delicious comedy series made for the BBC that owes its existence to the theatrical desolation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Had this theater season gone as normal, the director Simon Evans would have been engaged at the Chichester Festival Theater south of London, reviving Tom Stoppard’s play “The Real Thing.” Instead, Evans has written and directed a six-episode TV sitcom, with Sheen and Tennant as the often fractious co-stars of a revival of the Pirandello play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” that’s been postponed.

The result gives new meaning to making a virtue of necessity. Available on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months, “Staged” represents a quick-witted response to our bereft theatrical scene. It’s a win for all involved.

Throw in cameos from Samuel L. Jackson and a hilariously bossy Judi Dench and you have a comic essay in contrasts: Tennant, the lank-haired Scotsman, plays opposite the shaggy Welshman that is Sheen in lockdown. They are joined by their real-life partners, Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg, in a sequence of short episodes that play with reality in a way that Pirandello himself might recognize. (“It’s like something out of the damn play,” Sheen remarks.)

And though the impetus of “Staged” is the one-upmanship of its male leads, the impact of Covid-19 is felt, too, in shots of a weirdly still London and a subplot about an elderly neighbor of Sheen’s who falls ill. (Visual tributes to Britain’s National Health Service are in evidence as well.) At such moments, unstoppable comic energy gives way to contemplation as we recognize our strange times even as the artists lift our spirits.

ImageKristin Scott Thomas in the “Hand of God” episode of “Talking Heads.” She plays Celia, an antique dealer.
Credit…Zac Nicholson/London Theatre Company, via BBC

If “Staged” represents rambunctious entertainment of an unusually high order, “Talking Heads” lets us savor the transfixing power of the solo voice. Also available on BBC iPlayer, this remake of a series of vaunted television monologues by Alan Bennett, along with two new ones, owes its existence as well to the absence of live theater.

In a virus-free world, the director Nicholas Hytner, a two-time Tony winner, would have been shepherding “The Southbury Child,” a play by Stephen Beresford that was due to open at Hytner’s Bridge Theater in southeast London in April. Instead, the BBC approached him in March about overseeing a fresh take on these revelatory solo works from Bennett, the 86-year-old English playwright and a close friend and colleague.

And though filmed for TV as before, “Talking Heads” suggests a further life in the theater. Not only is the work’s scale ideal for social distancing (there’s a lot less to worry about with a cast of one), but many of the previous “Talking Heads” titles later came to London and New York stages in various groupings. Bennett’s writings must look like an even more attractive option nowadays in an industry encouraged by the pandemic to think small. (Their West End iteration won two Olivier Awards, London’s equivalent of the Tonys, in 1992.)

The first time, Bennett’s contained studies in self-deception and desolation attracted major names, among them Patricia Routledge, Eileen Atkins and, in one of her finest performances, Maggie Smith. So it comes as no surprise to find in the current lineup a female-heavy roster, including the stage and screen veterans Lesley Manville and Kristin Scott Thomas and younger faces like Jodie Comer from “Killing Eve.”

Scott Thomas is in peak form in “The Hand of God,” in which she plays Celia, a gently snobbish antique dealer who, to her lasting discredit, fails to clock the importance of a sketch that slips into the possession of a very lucky buyer.

Her sparkling eyes dimming as the extent of her folly is made clear, Celia — as is so often the case with Bennett’s characters — finishes her half-hour tale in a wounded, aggrieved state at some remove from her initial good cheer. Forever tugging at her sleeves, Scott Thomas captures this deluded woman’s gathering discomfort, and she is abetted by her director, Jonathan Kent, a prominent name who has also been brought into Bennett’s orbit.

Surprises of a different sort await two other Bennett heroines. In “The Shrine,” the 2019 Olivier Award winner Monica Dolan (“All About Eve”) unravels as her character, the newly bereaved Lorna, realizes that her deceased biker husband, Clifford, had a whole separate life.

One of two new titles — the other is “An Ordinary Woman,” with Sarah Lancashire — “The Shrine” proceeds to a teary finish that is unusual for Bennett, whose characters don’t normally betray their emotions so freely. Hytner directs as a master conductor would work through a new score from a favorite composer: Every beat counts.

And no praise is too high for another stage stalwart, Harriet Walter, in “Soldiering On.” Walter brings microscopic attention to her portrait of the poshly spoken, sad-eyed Muriel, a widow whose comfortable life has largely disintegrated by the time we arrive at the final frame. Her downward spiral was directed by the ever-observant Marianne Elliott, who was herself due on Broadway this season as director of the musical revival “Company.”

First performed over three decades ago by Stephanie Cole, “Soldiering On” is vintage Bennett in its mixture of rueful comedy (Muriel ponders the mourning habits of elephants) and growing despair. Things may be “not all gloom,” or so Muriel insists to the camera — even as her late husband’s toxic legacy is laid bare. But a last look at Walter reveals otherwise. The loneliness and loss are there for all to see even if Muriel, bless her, soldiers on.