Starved of what was due to be their theatrical debut at this year’s – sadly cancelled – Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Production Lines have used their time in lockdown productively to create a new piece of theatre for the virtual sphere. With shrapnel, writer and director Claire Wood crafts a narrative for the current times, exploring the various ways lockdown has impacted different groups, and affected their mental health.
Unfolding across several days, each scene exists as a singular Zoom call between various interconnected individuals: Martha checks in daily with her best friend Viv, who lives 127 miles away, while also trying to arrange to have her neighbour witness the signing of her will in a socially distanced manner; likewise Helen (Martha’s daughter) checks in on her children while on the night shift at the hospital; while young Jay leaves messages for her mum who is living in care.
The Zoom call format is a smart structure and is utilised well, with Wood and her co-director Alan Patterson smartly weaving in the various issues with the format as a form of communication. Elderly characters like Martha and Viv struggle to understand its intricacies, and – in a rather meta turn – display an accurate, albeit frustrating, lack of awareness around Zoom etiquette. Similarly, the chat functionality is neatly used when all the characters are brought together at the denouement, although it would have been nice to see it used more at other points.
What is instantly refreshing is that shrapnel is live theatre performed virtually. It’s a bold move for a fledgling company, especially considering the precariousness of technology at the best of times. There are some technical hiccups at the start, and some screens are somewhat blurry, but these discrepancies are minor and are quickly forgotten. If anything, this can be considered a boon for the production with their boldness paying off. For those of us who have grown tired of the too-sleek productions from National Theatre Live, this has a much more authentic feel to proceedings due to the uniqueness of each performance.
shrapnel explores a verisimilitude of anxieties surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, with Wood seeking to open a wider dialogue about kindness and support structures. Helen worries that her daughters’ social skills and that they are missing out on being kids and teenagers. Viv is worried about whether other people will attend her virtual gig. All feel very real, and it’s good to see these issues represented.
Another character weaved into the narrative is Roderick, whose anxiety has skyrocketed, leading to a serious bout of agoraphobia. This is excellently performed by Richard Lydecker, who captures the minutiae of a sleep-deprived, anxiety-riddled young man with vigour. In fact, praise can certainly be heaped upon the entire group, especially the younger actors. They all work well together and give heartfelt performances, even if there are some questionable accents involved.
There is clearly a great deal of ambition and drive in what Production Lines have accomplished, especially within a social distanced environment; however, it is regrettably here where shrapnel stumbles somewhat. In attempting to cover as much ground as it does within its 70-minute runtime, the attention it draws to various mental health issues feels fleeting. Too little time is given to certain characters to fully explore their struggles in depth, and it feels a bit muddled as a result.
There is simply too much going on, and in this instance less is certainly more. It could more effectively make its statement by stripping the show back a tad, and it would be better for it. Case in point, Ellie Tullis’ monologue-like recorded messages to her mum are powerful reflections on missing family members and the importance of thinking about what others are going through during this time. In many ways, she carries the heart of the play on her young shoulders, but her limited appearances make the affair feel a little tacked on. It’s a shame because there’s almost an additional show’s worth of content with that premise, and both the writing and the performer deserve time to shine.
shrapnel is a smartly written piece of theatre by a passionate writer who is clearly tuned into the current zeitgeist. Between depicting the anxiety, stress, and depression of lockdown, Wood simultaneously reminds us of the positives. The sense of communitas, the reestablishment of old friendships alongside the affirmation of new ones, and even the stolen moments of a bar of Cadbury’s Bournville while overlooking the sea.
This is the beginning of something great, and by looking at it with a fine-toothed comb, there is serious potential to be found in Production Lines, Wood and her cast, and shrapnel.
Tickets for shrapnel are available here.
You can also read our interview with writer and director Claire Wood here.