The Ballad of Corona V - whynow

The Ballad of Corona V

The Big House Theatre Company is an amazing Islington-based charity working with disadvantaged young people to create wonderful theatre. Its latest offering, cruelly cut short by Lockdown 2, offers a highly inventive tragicomic take on a tragicomic year. 

It’s rare to go to a press night for a play that’s also its final performance. Then again, it’s rare to go to a press night for any kind of play these days. One would hope that the Big House Theatre Company’s production, The Ballad of Corona V, gets to finish its full run when lockdown ends, whenever lockdown ends; and not just because its even taking place seemed to portend a future reopening of the whole beleaguered theatre sector. 

In order to comply with government regulations, performers could only be watched by a six-person audience from the same household or bubble. So, the producers made it a procession: five scenes, each in a separate room, with groups of six moving through at staggered times. As the title suggests, the play, written by young Birmingham playwright David Watson, is topical. But it isn’t just the subject matter which makes it so. 

During a time when we are spending even more of our waking hours online, the production makes clever use of a panoply of different media to tell the story of Britain in 2020, thus far. The fragmented narrative features characters from both the upper echelons and lower rungs of society. All of it is set to an original (in every sense of the word) soundtrack—part-performed, part pumped-out—composed by local grime artist Jammz. 

The effect is highly appropriate: managed chaos, orchestrated disarray. We began as onlookers at a New Year’s Eve party. As the revellers look forward to the year ahead, we suddenly realise that (oh, yes) it is 2019/20 and this was us ten months ago: blind and hopeful.

In the next room, we meet the sinister titular character: a rootin’ tootin’ renegade who screams and clicks his heels as he promises to wreak havoc on the world. But before that, he must track down one hauntingly named victim. 

Aside from the more conceptual flights, the script touches on many highly familiar moments of the past year. There are wry observations on middle class drug users, 5G conspiracists and Amazon.

But mostly it’s about differing experiences of the pandemic depending on job and social class. The penultimate scene is set in an intensive care unit and features a very well impersonated Boris Johnson larking around in the rimy glow and bumming a cigarette of a hospital cleaner. In the background, recorded coughing provides the most unsettling of soundtracks. 

The ensemble cast get close, but not too close; and, rather than distracting, I found wearing a mask actually heightened the dramatic effect—I felt that my enigmatic reactions were part of the performance.

The actors are mostly young and local, and all phenomenal. Big House is a charity theatre company that works with young, predominantly black and minority people who have been through the care system. Speaking to them after the performance it was obvious how much it had helped them.  

A few days ago, Kit Harington namechecked this show and the Big House in an interview on ITV’s Peston about the future of live performance. He described the processional nature of the show as one possible way for theatres to adapt to the pandemic.

Harington said these innovative methods probably wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run, but as solutions go, it was a great way to ensure a semblance of normality. Despite the topicality of the show, there were actually moments when, fully rapt, I forgot about all the shit going on outside, in the ‘real’ world. And, surely, that’s what theatre’s all about. 

The show is relaunching after Lockdown 2.

Rampa  They Will Be