You’ve heard of the National Theatre, who have been releasing recordings of shows from their online archive each week on YouTube. But have you heard of the National eTheatr?

A new online space for artists and audiences during the Covid-19 crisis, it was set up by actor Barry Brett-MacStay and has been releasing several performances per week as live streams since opening on 17 March. Some are feature-length (and deserve a post of their own), but several are bite-sized and under half an hour, and I decided to focus on a few of these to introduce the series to you.

You can follow the National eTheatr on YouTube to view all their productions, and donations are welcomed via Paypal or Ko-fi. Look our for announcements on upcoming shows and artists on their Twitter.

I decided to look in depth at four videos on the site. I watched all these when they were originally transmitted, and took another look to get my thoughts together – I’m reviewing rather differently these days than I would committing live performances to memory. Another unforeseen consequence of viewing and reviewing material in lockdown.

Tiny Head / Pencils

First up is a duo of bizarre and surreal monologues from writer-performer Richard Soames. Tiny Head is a curious piece running at just over five minutes, starting with an anecdote recalling an acting colleague with a small head, moving quickly into the realms of horror. It’s ephemeral but fun and plays well with the ideas of physical aberration and the reactions of others.

Pencils finds our narrator sharpening one pencil after another: we find he is not just addicted to accepting bets, but to finding ways of winning them. A particularly disturbing aside about an ice-cream van leads into to an eventual disintegration of mental stability as the story is delivered in a matter-of-fact way. A surrealist piece of lunacy which does convey a very strong message I found myself thinking about quite a lot after my first viewing.

Isolation Ragu

My next choice was Isolation Ragu. This is written by Rachel Bellman, directed by Stephen Oswald, and performed by Jon Dryden Taylor. Newly written, and directly relevant to the situation most of us find ourselves in right now, we find our character restricted to his house, alone except for “Clive the spider” and trying to follow a recipe he “found on Tinder” with an every-increasing set of unsuitable ingredients.

We discover that for this man loneliness is becoming a real problem, with not even a consoling supply of alcohol to keep the days lubricated. I liked the passage which detailed a last journey on a tube train and walk along a street in London (“like Pac Man, avoiding old people … don’t want them to become ghosts”. The performance was spot on, with a man desperate to engage with others but teetering on the edge of breaking down. The ending was quickly dealt with, but powerful.

Screencaps from Trixie, Pencils, Isolation Ragu and Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Screencaps from Trixie, Pencils, Isolation Ragu and Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Signed, Sealed, Delivered is written by Judy Upton, directed by Jessica Mensah, and performed by Alice Merivale. This is a about a student at university who has always been in the background, on the edge of crowds, never noticed. She appears to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of types of cardboard and parcel tape, and for a while we don’t know what she’s up to.

Built through a slightly nervous but warm performance, Merivale’s character pulls us into her fantastical plan to get back home and out of her accommodation now all her friends have left. Except just the same as at school, she’s stayed on the fringes, “forcing a smile”. This is a play about being put into a box (metaphorically and literally), and about thinking outside the box.

This is a quirky and complex piece which shows the character to be just as interesting in her own way as anyone else, and I liked the visual bits towards the end which brought a wider world to life.

Trixie

Finally, I wanted to take another look at Trixie, written by Camilla Whitehill, directed by Nicky Allpress, and performed by Elinor Peregrin. Technical issues left Peregrin to intriduce the piece and as a recent LAMDA student, she had some interesting thoughts on how she found the experiences of rehearsing and performing a piece with others in isolation.

I know very little about Drag Race, but it transpired that this character was a superfan of Trixie Mattel, American drag queen. So much she runs a fan account on Instagram dedicated to her (but “couldn’t afford the meet and greet” when she appeared at the Palladium). When we meet our character, we find she has gone viral on Twitter and in the media due to an act of heroism on a night bus. But all is not as it immediately seems.

In a very assured and confessional performance, Peregrin is completely convincing as she discusses issues around social media engagement, sexting and even dealing with unsolicited DM harassment by planning an art project.

Using regular phone pings and references to show business culture and expectations, this piece was interesting as it explored what the internet can make people do in order to gain additional followers and to drum up interest from those in the public eye (and how quickly those “little lies” can be discovered and exposed).

National eTheatr will be adding more shows very soon – please consider donating to support the artists featured if you are able to do so.

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