Review: Under the Mask, Theatre Peckham

Playing at Theatre Peckham before a UK tour, Tamasha Theatre’s Under the Mask – written by a junior doctor – is a haunting revisit of the early days of the pandemic

“I’m telling you now I don’t feel safe”

Given that you can’t help but expect that there’s going to be a whole lotta COVID plays coming along soon, there’s a balancing act to be made about the approach to a global pandemic that is still very much a clear and present danger. Under the Mask takes the route of almost documentary realism as junior doctor and new writer Shaan Sahota very much writes what she knows.

A Tamasha and Oxford Playhouse co-production, opening its UK tour at Theatre Peckham, Under the Mask invites audiences to an audio experience, taking us back to the beginning of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK. Viewed through the scarcely believing eyes of newly qualified doctor Jaskaran who is fast-tracked onto the Intensive Care Unit, it’s a haunting tale of lived experience.

And because Sahota is writing so personally about something still so current, that documentary approach does feel most appropriate. This is a measured play that quietly roars its pain for all the lives lost and the superhuman efforts of the NHS staff who had, and still have, to pay quite the personal cost. To quibble about dramatic impetus and narrative thrust feels vulgar as heavens knows there will be time enough to explore COVID in a more theatrical manner.

As it is, director Sita Thomas employs a delicate touch to keep us from pure reportage, utilising key aspects of a soundscape recorded live in hospital wards to immerse us in that feels all-too-scarily familiar. And Aysha Kala leads the impressive voice cast as Jaskaran who bears the full brunt of being in the firing line of a national health crisis with both eloquence and exasperation, learning on the spot how to care just enough for her patients but also for herself.

Ashley Bale’s lighting design undulates effectively as we shift from bedside Skype calls to frustrated staff meetings, from wearying ward runs lacking hope to visits home trying to isolate from concerned parents. Though care has been taken to avoid the piece from ever becoming too overwhelming in its depiction of an ongoing tragedy, an hour seems about right to remind us of the utter paucity of a clap on the doorstep.  

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Geraint Lewis
Under the Mask is booking at Theatre Peckham until 18th June then tours to Theatr Clwyd, 30th June — 3rd July; Liverpool Playhouse, 8th July — 10th July; Oxford Playhouse, 12th July — 15th July and Rose Theatre Kingston, 21st July — 25th July

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