Come from Away: Smartly crafted

Online drama can be a hit

Some of the shortcomings of the theatre turn to benefits in digital translation

On Theatre

our interactions in the coronavirus era can feel weirdly theatrical — all those masks and exaggerated spatial awareness. The need to avoid each other makes us all the more aware of the social interaction we’re missing. Kudos then to digital departments across theatreland, which have rapidly pulled together livestreams and partnerships with platforms and TV to keep us in touch.

The National Theatre (with YouTube) brought in an audience of more than 200,000 for its first screening of One Man, Two Guvnors, James Corden’s comic pièce de résistance adapted by Richard Bean from the commedia dell’arte classic. Camera work is nimble and avoids the curse of over-giddy zooming, a risk of filmed theatre being that it can induce wobbly seasickness in the living-room audience. 

Streaming offerings work best when they are bold – subtlety is wasted on YouTube

What works and what doesn’t in the dramatic digital experiment? Streaming offerings work best when they are bold (subtlety is wasted on YouTube) and where the play is reasonably familiar to audiences (Shakespeare) or the plot, like One Man, is intricate but not too demanding. 

Corden is a big enough actor, in every sense of the word, to shine in his vaudeville role as Francis Henshall, an out-of-work skiffle player, leaping effortfully between the roles of master and servant to make ends meet and avoid the long arms of the law in underworld Brighton in the 1960s. The National’s other offers have been a lively Treasure Island and upcoming at the end of April, Tamsin Greig’s mercurial, gender-bendy Malvolia (yep, it’s that sort of production) with a waspish Olivia (Phoebe Fox) in its zesty Twelfth Night. Again, it works because Greig is an accomplished TV actress, who can turn a grimace or gender-fluid leer into a moment to remember.

And here’s the rub about online drama: some of the shortcomings of the theatre version turn to benefits in digital translation. So the RSC’s Macbeth with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack as Scotland’s homicidal spouses was not a great hit on stage. But as part of the BBC’s “Culture in Quarantine” series, beginning shortly on our screens, it might well work better, because Ecclestone excels on the small screen as a mixture of the grim and beguiling. 

By coincidence, my box-set recommendation is via Britbox — the overdue British TV streaming service — and especially its re-run of Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North. The series (aired in the mid-1990s) still feels compelling, nearly quarter of a century after it charted the scattered fortunes of sad leftie Nicky (Eccleston) and his love triangle with Mary (Gina McKee) and Tosker (Mark Strong) from the Poulson building scandal on Tyneside to the Blair years. What a cast. Watch out for Daniel Craig, looking older in his earliest role on TV as the luckless Geordie Peacock than he does now: proof of what a James Bond fitness regime and associated income can do for a guy.

Our next outing from the sofa stalls was to I And You, targeted on younger audiences at the Hampstead Theatre, still running when lockdown began and continued on Instagram — a first for theatre. Its author Lauren Gunderson is one of the most widely performed living writers for the American stage, this time with a yarn about a teenager trapped in her bedroom awaiting a liver transplant.

Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones alert) won plaudits for the role of Caroline, exuding a young person’s yearning for companionship, awkwardly allied to a desire to tell everyone to eff-off: with more reason than most, given that her life in a bubble is the result of liver failure, rather than the brief inconvenience of Covid-induced detention.

Alas, neither my co-critic 15-year-old nor I reckoned Gunderson nailed the transatlantic vernacular of Generation Z. “You’re such a boy, inveighs Caroline to her visitor-interloper (Zach Wyatt), a classmate who shakes up her sad world, which sounded more like Monica in 1990s Friends than a bona fide species of a young millennial. The message is that youth is tragicomic and Walt Whitman’s poetry pretty good — echoes of Robin Williams’s turn in Dead Poets Society, which did it all a lot better.

Real theatre memories feel precious at the moment, a memory-tank to indulge as we search out the hits and bloopers on TV and online. One of the few productions to have some good luck in the circumstances was Come from Away, the winsome Canadian musical set in the small community of Gander, which found itself playing host to thousands of trapped air passengers forced into an emergency landing after 9/11.

It squeaked in its first-anniversary performance in London, just before the quarantine curtain came down. I confess to having previously avoided Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Tony-winning offering, on the grounds that most things described as “heartwarming” about 9/11 are to be avoided. I realised about half an hour in that I had been wholly wrong and this is a very smartly crafted and quietly witty musical indeed.

A warm but narrow community opens itself to the temporary fellowship of stranded passengers. And yes, it is so-very-Canadian, full of touching social archetypes — a gay couple whose relationship comes under strain as their responses to the enforced stay deepen, an African immigrant whose offers to help with the cooking are rebuffed in the mood of suspicion that wells up against innocent Muslims, and a woman searching desperately for phone contact with her son, a firefighter in New York.

The storylines are based on verbatim stories from Gander at the time, and any soppiness is kept in check by stomping folk numbers and a wry script. It also felt uncannily prescient of another test of our resolve and cohesion in times of pain. Come from Away will be back at the Phoenix in Covent Garden when theatreland’s velvet curtains rise again after the longest interval since the war. As a cheering date for the rentrée, whenever it comes, you could do a lot worse than plan for a convivial gander at it.

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