Review: Scenes for Survival - Ian and Sheena, National Theatre of Scotland

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, much of the theatre industry’s attention has been focused on the highest-profile venues and productions, wondering how these legendary institutions will manage to stay afloat. Will The Phantom of the Opera ever return to the West-End? Will regional theatres like the Nottingham Playhouse be able to survive? But away from these prominent examples, an important part of the industry has been left un-championed – the am-drams – the countless theatre companies who perform not for a living but just for fun. Luckily, as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival project, there is a show that has their back: Ian and Sheena.

The Company Secretary and Madam Chairwoman respectively of the Kirktoon Players (the country’s ‘leading’ amateur dramatics group), Ian (Richard Conlon) and Sheena (Gail Watson) are in a precarious situation. In a fourth-wall-breaking turn of events, they’ve been asked by Scotland’s National Theatre to contribute to their Scenes for Survival project, to offer entertainment despite this tumultuous time… the only question is what can they do? Stuck inside and apart, the dynamic duo have no cast, no budget, and really no clue how to put a show together under these circumstances; will they be able to get something together and represent am-dram on the BBC?

Co-written by Conlon, Watson and director Robert Softley Gale, Ian and Sheena is irreverent fun: the pair are happy to break the fourth wall, participate in silly gags, and even interact with Natalie MacDonald, the BSL interpreter signing their performance. It’s chaotic energy, in the best way. Indeed, Conlon and Watson are easily the highlight of the 10-minute piece, utilising their natural chemistry to churn out laughs – there’s something almost Chuckle Brothers-esque about their snappy back-and-forth and good-natured ribbing; Barry and Paul would be proud.

Moreover, this fun is grounded completely in the current reality facing the theatre industry. Sheena becomes something of a mouthpiece for am-dram directors, in this regard: as she rightly points out, if the biggest theatres in the country can’t get audiences in, who will want “to sit in [their] church hall again”? It’s a terrifying thought shared by many at the moment, and one that feels more prescient each day that passes; when can they get together again? When will people feel safe to do so? Ian and Sheena doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but equivocates that these feelings are valid: its an anxiety-inducing time, and no one is alone in feeling that way.

Nevertheless, the piece takes something of an odd turn here and there: some gags go on for far too long, some make no sense, and some fall completely flat. Furthermore, the short performance ends on a sudden and unexpected romantic note: out of the blue, a love story appears and dominates proceedings. It’s not innately bad, but it is a bit jarring.

Above all else, Ian and Sheena is optimistic: it’s the champion and mouthpiece that am-dram groups not only need, but also deserve. As Sheena professes, people come to the theatre to “feel a part of something”: the art form is more than just ticketed performance; it’s community, and Ian and Sheen places that front and centre.

Ian and Sheena is playing as part of the Scenes for Survival. For more information, visit the National Theatre of Scotland website.