The Still Life collection of short films from Nottingham Playhouse is created by writers using interviews with residents of Nottingham relating their experiences during the Covid crisis. These are people whose stories might not usually be heard, but in dramatizing their experiences this sharply staged compilation captures the everyday human consequences of the pandemic.
This is an enormously effective piece of theatre, understated in its delivery yet informative and highly emotive. Sitting on my own, watching online, I am consciously distanced from the people whose stories are voiced here, but oddly it’s as if the production uses the layers of technology and acting to function as a lens. Sensitively and simply, these magnificent performances concentrate the humanity of lived experiences, piercing through the fog of social isolation they are created in and delivering them to me in clear, impactful focus.
The cast are flawless, starting with the legendary Julie Hesmondhalgh in a documentary-style monologue, Out of Stock by Amy Guyler. In a volunteer-run café, she gives her all to help vulnerable people, never judging, communicating through a pack of cards, teabags and biscuits. But in the context of financial deprivation the story she reveals is of the value of human contact and companionship, scarce this past year, and of appreciating the ordinary when it is absent. Commenting on a society where you must prove your distress to get help, Hesmondhalgh delivers a warm and moving characterisation of a woman supporting others, whilst suffering with her own issues. Gentle humour couches the harshness of her reality, as she poignantly demonstrates that “Real life is harder than you think”.
The two white-van men in Handle With Care are an unlikely pair. Conor Glean and Karl Haynes skilfully create an uncomfortable tension as their characters debate whether to help someone seemingly in danger or instead continue their day. The clever script by Olu Alakija elegantly offers up insightful questions about the expendability of the working class, and the personal risks in being socially responsible.
Next, at a time of life when there are already many changes to manage, Facts by Nathan Ellis voices the struggles of a teenager (Amelia Harding) who has lost all structure in her existence. This is an ingeniously composed piece, the performance re-enacting the fractured, changing experience of the young girl. Uncertainty is made tangible through the drama, as her normally ordered sequence of numbered facts falls apart through the pandemic.
Pimp My Ride by Emteaz Hussain offers more fine performances, bringing together an Uber driver (Esh Alladi) and a student (Jessica Temple) as representations of disparate elements of the community and giving insight into their human likenesses. Both are challenged to retain some sense of normality under pandemic restrictions, and again the drama raises challenging questions about behaviour: what rules are they prepared to knowingly break, whilst potentially risking lives by spreading infection?
The production ends with Muriel by Alan Bennett, a short but oh-so-sweet monologue from the inimitable Frances de la Tour. Rehearsing for the funeral of her husband of 56 years, she describes the loss of their constant day to day contact, with George always present in her life. No spoilers here, but having spent the last year with my husband working from home, let’s just say I can relate to her experience… The production ends with a knowing smile.
Entertaining, efficient, well-written, beautifully performed and directed, this moving collection compresses enormous social issues into its fragmentary tales. It challenges the audience to consider its own actions by highlighting local human experiences, glued together with a virus that has us all in its global shadow.
Written by: Olu Alakija, Alan Bennett, Nathan Ellis, Amy Guyler and Emteaz Hussain
Directed by: Adam Penford and Matthew Xia
Produced by: Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company
Still Life is available to watch until 17 June 2021. Tickets are just £10.