Theatres are continuing to mount some productions digitally, expanding access to the arts. One recent example is the 2022 UK digital tour of Reel Life, presented by Folio in partnership with English Touring Theatre and Pound Arts. Originally performed on stages in 2016, the play focuses on what’s underlying recovery, reconnection, and loss. Directed by Adam Lenson, the original cast returns with Lizzie Stables as Jo, Matt Tait as Huw/G, and Michael Palmer as Mark/T.
Writer Alys Metcalf (Remnants, Peaky Binders: Ultimate Recap, and You Only Live Forever) trained in the BBC Comedy Writers Room (2018), Criterion New Writers Programme, and Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme. She is a recipient of two awards in the 100 Hour Film Racing Competition, two Peggy Ramsay Awards, and a Lovie Award. During our Zoom call, Metcalf was excited to talk about coming back to Reel Life and bringing it to a digital format as a filmed play.
Collaborating with Folio Again
What do you like about Folio’s approach to theatre?
They want to tell intimate stories in a very creative way that pushes form and structure into a more ambitious place. They represent more sort-of rural communities and stories as well. In the UK, we can be quite city-centric and very London-focused because the heart of our theatre is the West End. I like that Folio is pioneering other voices from around the UK and represents other areas on the theatre map.
What is the same in the new digital production?
The integrity of the story and the heart of the characters are still there. The trajectory is much the same as it was originally.
Reuniting with Cast and Creatives
What was it like bringing back the original cast?
They’ve been so supportive and amazing! As actors, they were already fantastic [in 2016]. Now they’ve become even more nuanced and brilliant. Being able to make some writing tweaks was great because I know them better as actors. I can play more into what they excel at.
For example, Michael Palmer, who plays Mark, has a natural and organic way of speaking. It sometimes falls out of him, not always in a clean sentence and with stumbling as we would in reality when we speak. I’ve tried to reflect that in Mark’s dialogue.
How did Adam Lenson’s direction help?
He’s innovative visually, which really enhances the writing. He’s so good at the medium of digital meeting theatre. There are moments where it sits a little longer than if it was on the telly, but you still have the intimate feeling of watching something on stage. He is ambitious and doesn’t shy away from a challenge. That’s exactly what we needed for this production.
Updating the Script
Did your wide range of writing experience in theatre, TV, film , and radio make it easier to transition this play from the stage to the digital sphere?
Yes, definitely it had an influence. I made changes to adapt it to being more televisual, bridging the gap between theatre and screen. For certain bits, perhaps on stage you can afford to let something sit for longer. On a screen, that could become very annoying all the time so I made pacing changes.
Because it’d been more than six years since I wrote Reel Life, in that time I developed as a writer. The way to approach dialogue and structure change anyway. I couldn’t help myself and to be honest, if I went back to it now or every day, I’d probably change it again. Hopefully, you are constantly evolving as a writer and getting better.
Dealing with Trials in Love and Loss
With relationships, is there an aspect we overlook or don’t let ourselves go through fully?
Sometimes when people who love each other go through a crisis together, they are evolving [as] in the case of Jo and Huw, but not necessarily in the same direction. They become different people. They don’t always communicate with each other in an honest way.
In transition periods, communication may break down. I wanted to look into denial and how you come to terms with something and try to find closure. Each character becomes stronger as they are reconciling what they’ve all individually been through in loss and loneliness. They are on their isolated journeys and I try to bring them together at the end.
‘Reel Life’ is available for live and online screenings through the end of April 2022. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the English Touring Theatre website.