A last hurrah for the Zoom play

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

House Mother Normal – Online, until 2 June

Socially Distant *Yet Digitally Close and YouTube, until 28 May

Lockdown is about to end but some theatres are gripped by cabin fever and want to explore the two new formats created by the pandemic. One is the Zoom play with multiple actors, the other is the sequence of filmed soliloquys linked by a theme or storyline.

Tim Crouch has directed a Zoom version of B.S. Johnson’s satire House Mother Normal, which is set in an old folks’ home in the 1960s. The inmates are detained in a communal ward run by a sadistic nurse, the ‘house mother’, who enforces a programme of singalongs and party games. The house mother carries a weapon and feels free to beat anyone who defies her authority. That sounds peculiar but in the mid-20th century it was common for medical staff to lord it over their patients like public school prefects. ‘Don’t you cheek me,’ she barks, ‘or you’ll get a taste of the twitcher.’

The show is presented with all nine actors on-screen throughout, and they natter and witter non-stop. Perhaps the aim is naturalism, but it makes for stressful viewing. Off-screen there’s a yapping mongrel, Ralphie, who adds to the bothersome sound effects. At random, one actor will crank up the mic and talk over his bantering rivals but the speeches are often inaudible because the rest of the cast are rabbiting too loudly.

None of the elderly characters has anything wise or profound to say. A woman recalls the first time she saw a man naked, ‘when he tried to get me down on a hotel bed’. A Welsh character tells us: ‘From that day on he was never a great talker, was Aled Llewellyn.’ It’s not clear why that statement is worth writing down, let alone putting in a play. The highlight of the show is a game of pass-the-parcel organised by the house mother. But it’s a trick. The prize turns out to be a pile of Ralphie’s faeces.

Some of the characters have anger problems and they trade abuse with their enemies across the ward. ‘No one can sing louder than me,’ yells a petulant old dear, ‘even that fat slob, Ivy. Cow!’ This doesn’t ring true. With old age comes a loss of energy and an unwillingness to bear grudges or to cultivate feuds. If you’ve ever visited a care home you’ll know how pointless it is to throw insults around. Nearly everyone is deaf.

Grid Iron Theatre Company has waved goodbye to lockdown with a set of 30 filmed monologues, Socially Distant *Yet Digitally Close. It opens as a comedy of manners. A lone female appears in a student room saluting the joys of isolation. ‘I’ve learned lots of new hobbies,’ she enthuses, ‘lockdown has been so good to me.’ She’s also draining a bottle of vodka. Some of these 60-second skits achieve a surprising level of subtlety. ‘Yeah, we all hate J.K. Rowling now,’ says a keyboard warrior, casually. But his glibness is a dig at the dangerous superficiality of Twitter storms and hate mobs.

Much of the camera work is artful and highly attractive. Some is stylish enough to be displayed in an exhibition of still photographs. Occasionally a sketch arrives that seems dud or pretentious but it doesn’t matter because another one pops up a minute later.

A female student sits staring from her window at the streets below. ‘Nature’s television’, she calls it. ‘As I sit at my seat I can see different genres like romantic comedies and sitcoms. I see beauty… I just wish I could change the channel’. That sounds morbid but it works effectively.

There are some exquisite pieces of storytelling. We’re introduced to a depressed male going quietly mad in his bedsit. Next, he reassures his family over the phone. ‘Honestly Mum, I’m fine.’ But we discover that he’s making the call from a bridge, about to jump off. The hand of a stranger reaches in and saves him. Finally, he’s glimpsed talking to his saviour. But the saviour wears a white hood. It’s the Grim Reaper. A brilliant narrative miniature.

One stark vignette shows a beautiful, haunted woman in dark clothes pleading that lockdown suits her. She fears the end of the restrictions but her fears prompt feelings of guilt. ‘Can I stay here? I didn’t like normal.’ She slinks out of her room and leaves a poignant sign on a chair. ‘Is that bad?’ This is a reminder that many of those afflicted by depression or agoraphobia regarded lockdown as a weird kind of blessing. For the first time they felt superior to everyone else and better able to cope with life than ‘normal’ people.

This show is a great feat of imaginative art but it’s also a valuable account of lockdown as it appeared to witnesses at the time. It’s rare to find a theatrical event that will form part of the historical record.

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