The first series of Staged was one of the surprise successes of 2020, using the boundaries imposed by the pandemic and the shortage of new TV those limitations had imposed to create a low-budget and instantaneous reaction to the situation in six fifteen minute chunks.
The overall narrative followed the attempts by fictional versions of Michael Sheen, David Tennant and Simon Evans (played by themselves) to rehearse remotely Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author during lockdown. The attempt is ultimately unsuccessful and the episodes themselves revolve around the different distractions and problems the trio face during this process.
As we find ourselves in another lockdown (is this one the second? Or third? What are the criteria?), a second series did make a certain amount of sense, even just six months after the first. After all, all the criteria that made the first series happen (lack of TV programming, money, distractions, work) are either just as true or truer, and there is of course the added incentive to capitalise on a successful first outing.
And superficially all the elements are back. Tennant and Sheen have great chemistry, charm and timing with Evans providing both the structure of the show (both on and off the screen) as well as the more put-upon, beaten down element of the trio. And the show creators are well aware of the wider meta-possibilities provided by the juxtaposition of the first series’ choice of play-text with its performers’ situation.
However, the series was definitely a product of its time in its production, content, and relatability, and a second series seems a riskier proposition than most sequels. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle, except the bottle was itself only in existence for a brief moment in time.
As the conceit of the first series itself didn’t lend itself to a continuation (“Shall we rehearse the same play again?” “Shall we fail at rehearsing a different play?”), the team instead opted for a meta-approach. Now they are playing fictionalised versions of the actors who played fictionalised versions of themselves in the first series. Thus, the first episode of this new series covers the success of the previous series and the following one goes into the inevitable American remake.
I can see some people calling this self-indulgent, but it didn’t have to be. American remakes are a reality of successful British television and a series looking at that in a fictional setting would have had a lot to explore, especially for comedy. After all, most US remakes (The Office being a very rare exception) tend to fail miserably, missing both what made the original series work and mistranslating it for its new audience. Wikipedia lists almost 150 of them (including three separate attempts at redoing Fawlty Towers) with 1/10th of them not even surviving their own pilot, let alone their first series.
It has often been said that misery and failure are the source of a lot of great comedy, so there was obviously room for manoeuvre here. How are American comedians and audiences different to British ones? How do you recreate what seemed like an improvised, spur-of-the-moment show based on three people being who they are? How do you stop your project being taken away from you by someone larger and more powerful? Add to that the possibilities offered by getting bigger American and British starts to come in and poke fun at (versions of) themselves and the process of auditioning and putting on a show and you’d have expected more than enough to fill the 90 minutes the first series lasted.
The second series we got did go for a few of these things, such as America’s different needs and the availability of either more or bigger stars (though some of them are playing themselves while others are playing characters, a combination which is weirder here than it was in the smaller first series). All of these actors are welcome and some of them work very well. I’m always happy to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for instance, and I think Michael Palin in Episode 1 was a highlight of the series, though I am sure many will disagree on all of these examples.
Even discounting all that, side-lining Sheen and Tennant from the remake might work as a joke but stretches very thin the first series’ bare frame-work of a plot. There at least they had desires and faced repercussions but here they are just causing trouble as revenge for being fired from something they didn’t want to do anyway.
As the sole remaining strand of this remake, Evans’s director character and script become the centre of the show without being its focus point. There are many arguments in the show between Evans, Sheen and Tennant about how much of the first series was written by him as opposed to improvised by them and, whether or not this was a real-life niggle for the show’s creator, it does seem to have got in the way of this series.
It is puzzling to me that so much of this series revolved around auditioning new actors using scenes from the first series, as the result is just that we are hearing the same dialogue again, but this time shorn of its novelty and spontaneous feel. Surely a second series equivalent to the first series’ concept would have been to try to get, for example, the fictional Pegg and Frost to improvise along the same basic idea but in a very different way (maybe these well-known geeks would instantly make it about Star Wars, or Star Trek, or zombies for example?) or subvert their images by displaying no spark, humour or even friendship between them?
Maybe Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Cate Blanchett come on and are pushed against their own will to make something crude and rude which is very different to what attracted them to the series? Or something cooler and more Hollywood? The possibilities seem far more wide-ranging than you would guess from the 4+ episodes featuring scenes in which familiar faces try to do Tennant and Sheen’s lines again, or arguments about what made the first series work.
Even Georgia Tennant’s main subplot this time around shows her rehearsing and performing one of her husband’s scenes from the first series. Was this the best way to move forward the character who, last series, was a new author, as well as a wife, mother and performer in her own right?
Of course, not every scene is about these three elements, nor are these three elements without worth. The familiar faces (as well as some of the new ones) do recapture what made the first series work. The second series reunites everything that made the first series what it was, albeit to diminished returns. And, as the entire series lasts less than the average film these days (two hours), one would hesitate to call it a waste of time. Like the first series it is short on plot, but whether or not that is an issue will be something you know going in. As the episodes are also short, it would be difficult to find the series wearing but, running two episodes longer than its predecessor, it does feel far flabbier. Which is a pity, as Staged Series Two’s concept did give it a lot of promise which the series does occasionally deliver on. If nothing else it proved that, against the odds, it could have recaptured its predecessor’s flash-in-the-pan, lighting-in-a-bottle feel. Sadly, it just didn’t.
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins.
Reviewed: 8th January 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★