UK TV review: Staged Season 2
Ivan Radford | On 10, Jan 2021
“Michael’s surprising. Michael’s fascinating. David’s sort of inert.” That’s another actor’s take on Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged, which returned for an increasingly meta Season 2 this week. The show, which aired on BBC One during the first national coronavirus lockdown, saw Michael and David play versions of themselves trying to adjust to life post-coronavirus outbreak, while meeting up virtually to continue rehearsing a play with director Simon Evans.
Season 2 continues the conceit – and then some – by picking up several months after Season 1, as Michael and David find themselves being quizzed on TV (by Romesh Ranganathan) about Staged itself. With the show (now existing within the show) a success, they once again have video calls with Simon, only to discover that he’s arranging an American remake of the series. Two performers playing themselves was self-aware enough, but the thought of two performers seeing other people playing them is an absurdly logical extension of the premise – sending both performers into an existential frenzy all over again.
Sheen and Tennant are clearly pleased to back together again, and the Good Omens co-stars remain a wonderful screen pairing, able to have the convincing chemistry of two old friends in the same room despite being nowhere near each other – even their insistence that they’re not each other’s best friend rings with an amusingly awkward accuracy.
The same can’t be said of the American actors lined up to play “Michael” and “David” for US audiences, and the show has a lot of fun pairing up its central couple with increasingly unlikely counterparts. While initially the joke is Colin Firth and Hugh Grant will take on their roles, the actual parade of cameos is perhaps even better, as people from both sides of the pond end up talking through motivations and machinations, while we cringe and giggle at their attempted deliveries of Season 1’s scripts.
To spoil the cameos themselves would be poor form, but it’s an impressive array from both sides of the Atlantic, and seeing the way they that different perceive our leading men in contrast to how their perceive themselves is a joy – especially when the pseudo-therapy sessions start to include all kinds of unlikely strangers who have their own interpretations of Michael and David’s dynamic. With Michael bitter about being recast in a project by someone who may or may not be David, there’s also an entertaining amount of backstabbing and acting politics – the words “long time no see” have rarely been so painful or funny. Whoopi Goldberg as their agent and Ben Schwartz as her assistant alone bring a nice balance of insults and sycophancy.
But the juiciest stuff still sits with the core cast, with Evans getting a more fleshed-out role, as he becomes worried about everything thinking that Michael and David improvised everything and he didn’t write any of it. Lucy Eaton, his sister, is even better, breezily declaring that Simon “can’t write women” – and teaming up with Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg to talk behind their respective partners’ backs about the whole mess.
Sheen and Tennant, meanwhile, get more dramatic material to play with alongside their friendly banter. While David is hoping to travel to Romania to resume filming (he was actually filming Around the World in 80 Days there), Michael is preparing to fly to New York for his actual best friend’s wedding. Of course, even a journey to Northampton would be a miraculous achievement as the men inevitably slide back into another lockdown, and Michael’s tetchy anxiety from Season 1 continues to escalate with every wide-eyed stare and beard-covered facial twitch. David, meanwhile, sinks into a sullen inertia that only Michael can really help him out of.
That constant throughline is what stops Season 2 of Staged disappearing up its own Zoom. Helped by its snappy 15-minute episode runtimes, Evans (and co-creator Phin Glynn), Sheen and Tennant craft a short and deceptively sweet tale of two friends who have helped each other get through a terrible crisis – yet, even when a one-to-one connection is possible, are still unable to express their gratitude for that. On some level, anyone watching will know exactly how they feel.
The extended cut
An extended version of the show, available exclusively on BritBox UK, features about 7 minutes of extra footage per episode. While there’s not much there that will visibly stand out – although the elongated Episode 8 does feature a song by Alex Baranowksi, Simon Evans and editor Dan Gage, with vocals by Hamilton’s Giles Terera – it gives the cast extra beats and notes to flesh out their scenes, whether that’s Sheen and Tennant embellishing their insults at each other, or Simon and Georgia getting a welcome extra chance to bring added nuance to their relationship, particularly at the beginning of Episode 6. The result breathes a little more, draws out the pauses a little longer and captures the see-sawing mood of its lead duo with greater heights and depths – and besides, who wouldn’t want to spend more time with such a winning double act?
Staged is available on BBC iPlayer until December 2021. Season 2: Extended is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.