I expect before we are too much older there will be slew of plays about the lockdowns or at least this will continually feature as the background to what is taking place in the narrative. One of the first to hit the airwaves is Love In The Lockdown by Clare Norburn featuring the music of medieval music ensemble The Telling. A unique feature of the play is that it has been released in nine separate episodes on the first anniversary of each of the days on which events are taking place. Episode 1 went out on 4 March and the final episode aired last night some three months later. I had waited until the whole show was available which might be slightly against the spirit of the thing, but I was keen to see how it held up as a whole piece. Early reviews from others suggested that it would be a bit of a treat and so it transpired.
It’s slightly unnerving going back 14 months and remembering how the pandemic got a grip quite so quickly. Each episode starts with some news headlines or the voices from the government briefings as a reminder of what was happening; Boris Johnson makes a brief audio appearance courtesy of impressionist Jon Culshaw. But this isn’t a documentary you will probably be pleased to know. Rather it is an examination of a relationship started up at a dinner party pre-lockdown and how the pair deal with the enforced separation meaning they can only meet online.
The couple are played by Alec Newman and Rachel Stirling which proves to be a very engaging pairing with strong characterisations from both. He is Giovanni a playwright and she is Emilia a musician specialising in the middle ages. Between them they hatch a plan to adapt Boccaccio’s Decameron a set of stories from the medieval period which are told while quarantining from the Black Death which is raging across Europe. He will, of course, write the words and she will, of course, organise the music. But they cannot meet and so have to do what people all around the world had to do and take to Zoom.
But, as we of course now know, the anticipated brief lockdown extends itself and frustrates the development of their personal relationship. They become subject to the demands of Giovanni’s mother who has come to live with him after a bout of Covid 19. She thinks her son could do much better and tries to sabotage their online time.
Then, when they are finally allowed to, Emilia won’t go for a socially distanced walk simply because she cannot trust herself not to get closer to Giovanni. Their plans for the play with music also come unstuck as TV commissioning editor Venetia Lemming-Brown (Leila Mimmack) wants to ditch the music element and replace it with “young singer songwriters strumming in their bedrooms”. What makes it worse is that Giovanni cannot bring himself to tell Emilia knowing that when the truth is revealed it could spell the end of their relationship which has barely had the time and opportunity to get started. This nicely spells out the dire effect which Covid has had on both personal and creative lives with some neat paralleling back to the 14th century for good measure.
The music is (unlike in Ms Lemming-Brown’s vision) totally essential to the mood and feel of the piece. I’m not sure whether the play was written first and then music found to complement it or the other way round but in any event it totally works. Author Norburn is a core member of The Telling and appears as one of the two singers in the piece. The other, Ariane Prüssner, unfortunately passed away during the transmission period but the glorious voices of these two women, often singing a cappella, enhances the narrative and creates a sombrely reflective mood. The other two musicians Joy Smith playing a harp and Jorge Jimenez who plays a vielle (an early form of violin) also excel, particularly when they play a manic virtuoso piece about the devil.
This drama with music about creating a drama with music is an unusual and welcome addition to the landscape of online theatre. The performances of both actors and musicians make for a thoughtfully structured and harmoniously delivered piece. Whether you choose to watch this in its nine individual segments or all at one go you will be charmed, entertained, moved, blown away by the music and prompted into some lockdown memories of your own.