STAGED Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves is of course nothing new. Perhaps perfected in recent years by the double act of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on their various Trips, the docu-comedy series works not just because the two are genuinely funny but also because they are real life friends and bring their rapport to the screen when let loose and allowed to largely improvise for the camera.

Staged is this but without the freedom of car journeys, restaurants, European locations, and one-upmanship Michael Caine impersonations.

Filmed during lockdown from their respective houses, the premise behind Staged is that Michael Sheen and David McDonald Tennant are cajoled into rehearsing their postponed West End play so that they're ready to perform as soon as social distancing measures are lifted. Of course, they do anything but rehearse, as distraction, boredom, homeschooling, haircuts, Bara Briths, disagreements over billing order, and their own creative efforts all get in the way.

Unlike The Trip, where Coogan and Brydon play, in many ways, the worst versions of themselves, here Tennant & Sheen are very much tapped into the psyche of the moment; the insecurities of the Coronavirus pandemic playing out between two performers devoid of an audience to perform to and uncertain when or if that audience will return.

It helps, of course, that the Good Omens duo are genuine friends in real life which means, across the six episodes and 100 or so minutes, their exaggerated Staged friendship is entirely believable. Add in their home lives with their respective partners and caring for neighbours and friends and you have, what feels like, the password into their daily Zoom hangouts. Because of this, when Staged is at its best it feels so natural and is quite glorious to watch. It's laugh out loud funny and a great antithesis for the troubled times we are living through. Even when the duo are at their most fragile it feels incredibly heartwarming to share in the emotions, ones I suspect many of us have felt recently too.

Staged is the brainchild of Phin Glynn and Simon Evans, the latter also directs and stars in the show as the director of the play Sheen & Tennant are rehearsing. It's all a bit meta, with even the name of the play eluding to this, but it works, and despite Evans lack of on-screen resume he plays his role as 'inexperienced hapless director' perfectly. When it comes to the script, I'd be very interested to know just what was written by Glynn & Evans and what wasn't. There are times when it's quite obvious, with the sub-plot of Sheen's neighbour, but in the large part it feels more like Tennant & Sheen were given general suggestions and allowed to just rift off one another. This is no criticism as these are the best parts of Staged, and within the general premise it all works very well (and if I'm wrong and the whole thing is entirely scripted then kudos to Evans & Glynn on that).

There are three cameos from other famous actors; two of which are spoiled by the opening credits of their respective episodes (one unnecessarily so and I can't help but feel it would've been wise to keep it a surprise for the mid-part of the closing chapter), the third is a genuine coup and entirely unexpected. No spoilers here on that. There's also a great turn by Nina Sosanya as Sheen & Tennant's agent who carries on as if the lockdown rules do not apply to her (kind of the theatre version of Dominic Cummings). All round the cast is very strong, especially when you consider Staged is really a glorified web-series put together in a very short time.

If I had to be critical for the sake of being critical, it would be that Staged is perhaps too obvious; in its story and where it ends up (not least of which, Chekhov's Cookie Jar), in its character development and within certain sub-plots inserted throughout. But this is very nitpicky as, given the backdrop it plays out against, Staged probably wouldn't work as well as it does if it took a different direction. We need 'happy endings' right now. Plus the story is not the main sales point here, it's Sheen & Tennant/Tennant & Sheen offering us the chance to drop by, voyeurism style, feel their warmth, share in their anxieties, laugh out loud and come out the other side feeling strangely reassured that no matter who you are, from whatever walk of life, we really are all in this together.

All six episodes of Staged are available on the BBC iPlayer now.

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