Life & Culture

Theatre Review: Two shows about love

Will theatre post-lockdown be changed forever?


Love in the Lockdown



Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels

Finborough Theatre YouTube Channel


To use a Huggy Bear-ism (just move on if age denies you the delights of Starsky & Hutch references) the word on the street is that pandemic theatre is here to stay even when/if the pandemic goes away.

Two shows currently online — respectively about a burgeoning and malfunctioning relationship — epitomise how writers have adapted their art to suit the practice of consuming theatre on a laptop.

Athena Stevens’s Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels was originally written for the Finborough’s stage but has been repurposed for streaming. Constructed out of two interlinked monologues it is a piece steeped in gender politics which is perhaps unsurprising given it was written by the former spokesperson of the Women’s Equality Party. Stevens herself plays the female friend of an (unseen) man who treats his girlfriend, played by Evelyn Lockley, with callous disregard.

In that sense it is aimed at outing the behaviour of women as much as men. The question at its core — how should women behave if a platonic male friend shows you the topless selfie sent by his girlfriend without the girlfriend’s permission?

In the sender’s monologues, filmed in Lily McLeish’s production in shadowy corners of her apartment, Lockley captures the complex motives that lie behind such an act — not least a young woman’s impulse to capture her body in its prime and share it as an expression of trust.

Stevens is the female friend who grapples with the dilemma of accepting or confronting the man’s assumption that he needs no permission to show it to her. It’s a play that signals the writer’s transitioning from the theme of disability (she was born with athetoid cerebral palsy) which so informed her previous plays.

Clare Norburn’s play meanwhile was created for and in response to the pandemic. Its cast features Alex Newman — recently in the Hampstead’s Covid-hit anniversary revival of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter — and Rachael Stirling as a couple who meet at a dinner party and then on Zoom.

He is a playwright and she is a musician who performs mediaeval music. Both have an interest in Boccaccio’s work The Decameron about young people fleeing 14th century Florence during the Black Death.

In today’s first episode Stirling’s Emilia and Newman’s Giovanni (also Boccaccio’s first name) hesitantly attempt to pick up on Zoom where their conversation stopped at their mutual friend’s dinner table.

The music ensemble The Telling bookend the couple’s painfully gauche conversation with era-appropriate music played in someone’s modern living room.

The dialogue, with Giovanni’s fourth-wall breaking asides, is littered with awkward first-date clichés. But setting the relationship against the milestones of lockdown — complete with a voice cameo in episode three by impressionist Jon Culshaw doing his Boris Johnson — promises to be some kind of antidote to our collective lockdown experience.

However, apart from the shared objective of exploring modern relationships what links these two productions is that they have both turned to what was once considered a fatally old-school tool for telling stories, the humble episode.

Although Stevens’s play can now be watched in one continuous 90-minute binge, it was originally posted in daily six-minute spurts, while Norburn’s play is being split into nine parts.

Will a development that grew out of theatre practitioners needing to engage audiences online be fed back to live theatre in our fast-approaching vaccinated future?

The idea would have seemed utterly unviable before Covid disrupted every convention. But our yearning to get back into theatres is now so palpable, signing up for a weekly fix for one production does not seem too outandish. Who then will be the first to write an episodic thriller for the stage?

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