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Tuesday, 5 January 2021

REVIEW: Staged helps us through another lockdown.

In June of last year, as the number of pre-COVID TV shows began to dwindle, David Tennant and Michael Sheen came to our rescue with a comedy that satirised the life we had all been living for the last three months. Staged starred Tennant and Sheen as somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves, who are forced to rehearse their new play over Zoom whilst the theatres are closed. The short episode lengths pandered to our reduced attention spans, and the fun, natural banter between the actors made Staged a hit, and arguably the most impressive lockdown-produced show. Its success meant a second series was announced in October, and the BBC comedy is now back on our screens, with all the elements that made us love it in the first place, plus a deliciously meta twist.

In its second run, the show seems to have recognised and capitalised on the public weariness and frustration of continually changing plans. For example, we find out that David is set to jet off to South Africa to film a new TV show, and Michael to New York to visit family, but both of their plans are quickly dashed by cancelled flights and travel restrictions. But not even Staged could have predicted that its return would follow the announcement of another national lockdown…

The first episode begins by replaying a scene from the first series before we discover that it is a clip being shown as part of the fictional chat show, ‘Romesh Ranganathan’s 6 Months in Lockdown’ on which David and Michael are guests, alongside Sir Michael Palin. After hinting at it in the first series, Staged launches into a fully-fledged meta-comedy, with Romesh asking the pair about what is real and what is pretend within their show – a question that will have been posed to Tennant and Sheen many a time whilst actually promoting the series. In fact, the entirety of the first series is scrutinised in this sequel; an outtake of David calling Michael a “cut-price Mike Yarwood” is met with blank looks from host Romesh and the pair have to awkwardly defend their own humour. Perhaps the highlight of the opening episode was Sir Michael Palin admitting that “I didn’t really like Staged” after praising it on air seconds earlier, leading to David angrily calling Monty Python dated. The episode ends with Michael being told by their agent (played by Whoopi Goldberg!) that he and David are being replaced in the American version of Staged that has been commissioned.

*SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE SECOND EPISODE WHICH IS NOW AVAILABLE ON BBC iPlayer.*



Episode 2 reintroduces Simon, who is currently in Los Angeles busy working on the American remake, as well as Nina Sosanya - who in the first series played Jo, the financer of the play, but appears as herself in series 2. There is a tense discussion between David, Michael and Simon about whether the first series was scripted or improvised, as the two actors are furious that they are not involved in the American version, whereas their hapless director Simon is. Perhaps some viewers wouldn’t realise that Simon Evans is actually the creator and writer of Staged, knowledge which adds another layer to this complex meta-narrative.

Although the story arc is significantly different this series, what has remained is the warmth of the interactions between David and Michael. Despite the ambitious plot and the famous cameos, I feel that this relationship forms the heart of every episode. Just as the fishing element of Gone Fishing acts as a vehicle for the funny and moving ramblings of Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse, the narrative structures of having to rehearse a play or cast an American remake give David and Michael an opportunity to chat aimlessly over zoom. I can’t relate to the particular struggles of actors, such as liaising with agents or trying to secure acting work, therefore it is the mundane and trivial conversations that connect me to Staged, something I am sure is the same for many other viewers. For example, we learn the reason why Michael won’t wear shorts, as well as alternative career options for the pair – priest and footballer, in case you were wondering. Some critics have described this second series as ‘self-indulgent’, and perhaps this is true, but I am more than happy to indulge David and Michael in their aimless, entertaining dialogue. The roles of Tennant and Sheen’s partners, Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg respectively, are also very important; it is easier to create a fictional world if that world is grounded in reality, and there is a genuine, believable friendship between the four of them which is a joy to watch.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes of Staged series 2. It is very different to the previous series and it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it really works for me, and I appreciate that it has a rather sophisticated narrative, yet it is such an easy and light-hearted watch. Like the first series, there is a host of famous guest stars yet to appear, including Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz who plays the assistant of  Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Mary.

Was a second series of Staged needed? I think so. David himself says, when asked about a potential second series by Romesh, “it was so specific to that moment” and I agree with this wholeheartedly. However, we, unfortunately, find ourselves in that same moment once again, but fortunately, we once again have the silliness of Staged to see us through it.

Contributed by Erin Zammitt

Staged Series 2 is available now on BBC iPlayer and airs Monday and Tuesday nights at 9.00pm on BBC One.

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