Winning collection of video-conferenced plays featuring the country’s best writers, directors and actors
Created by Headlong and Century Films, and broadcast as part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine series, Unprecedented takes the form of 14 short plays by many of the country’s best writers. A few of the plays are being broadcast on BBC Four, a few on iPlayer, and collectively they cover things such as viral TikToks, domestic abuse, video drinks parties, and the NHS front line.
Some pieces hit harder than others, whether that’s in the concept or the humour or the horror, but the strength of Unprecedented is in its totality. As the umpteenth character says: ‘Can you hear me?’ it becomes clear that this is a powerful exercise in connection - seeing characters try to connect to each other, and connecting us the audience to an array of lockdown lives and stories.
James Graham kicks things off with a lovely piece about three sixth-formers trying to create a viral video, and mourning the loss of the end of school. Archie Madekwe excels as a young man with all these dreams and ambitions that risk being wasted because of the interruption to his education and his life.
A brilliant play from Duncan Macmillan sees Katherine Parkinson try to persuade her parents – the always amazing Alison Steadman and Michael Elwyn - to take lockdown seriously. It features a screaming monologue against an older generation that eloquently and aggressively lays out all the frustrations of younger people about the state of society – no doubt it’ll be heard in audition rooms in years to come.
There’s particular joy, too, in April De Angelis’ play which features a group of neighbours getting together on House Party for drinks, each with a different middle class tipple – "a liqueur from the back of the cupboard", "a decent Sancerre", "some sort of IPA". It’s absolutely hilarious, partly because of the unstinting comic abilities of Fenella Woolgar and Cecilia Noble, but also from the brilliant direction by Holly Race Roughan, managing to perfect the thing that is so often absent from video calls: timing.
While some of the pieces are lighter and gentler, Prasanna Puwanarajah’s play, based on testimony from NHS staff in the middle of March, tugs things back to grim reality. “There’s fear fatigue in addition to actual fatigue,” says Rory Kinnear’s intensive care consultant. “And we’ve got anticipatory fatigue, planning fatigue, and the uncontrolled and the unknown...”
Of the nine I previewed, the play that sticks like a knife in the heart is a chilling contribution by Anna Maloney called Safer at Home, starring Gemma Arterton, Geraldine James and Rory Keenan. Arterton plays a woman being abused. The suspense, the intensity that it summons in eight minutes is astonishing, and a reminder of how horrifying lockdown has been for so many.