Alright Here...? [Benjamin Coakley, UK, 2020]

“If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.” It’s fair to say that Jean Paul Sartre wouldn’t have foreseen the catastrophic fallout of a globally destructive pandemic occurring in the 21st century, and yet the profound universality of his existential adage rings as resonantly now as it would have in wartime Europe. The collective sense of isolation and loneliness during this unprecedented worldwide event is symptomatic not of the crisis itself, but the cultural zeitgeist within which the coronavirus pandemic is merely a component. The virus has arguably acted as a catalyst in exposing pre-existing technological, environmental, economic, and psychocultural issues. Amongst the reactive glut of artistic projects clamouring to embody the spirit of these times, Benjamin Coakley’s Alright Here...? reveals both the potential and the inherent problem with producing art in isolation.

The short opens with an aerial establishing shot of a suburban neighbourhood location as Stevie Wonder’s jubilant ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’ scores the introduction to each character. It is tonally a great use of opening music, revealing immediately the jocular intentions of the film, whilst the camera patiently builds towards various character revelations, lingering on extreme close-ups of their distinguishing physical features, and clueing us into prominent aspects of their lives without giving too much away. Despite a lack of professional tools or crew at Coakley’s disposal it is a scene steeped in cinematic language, helping to presuppose a range of character studies, and signalling a filmmaker that is cognisant of visual narrative conventions.

The unlikely gaggle of personalities we eventually meet consists of British (with the exception of an Australian) working class archetypes, including a sycophantic Scottish woman with an unhealthy Bon Jovi obsession, a bespectacled, beer-bellied Geordie, a crazy Irish cat-lady, and a cockney, bricklaying geezer. Set up in a roundtable fashion, each character spins a long-winded and inconclusive yarn, and within this framework the central joke is established. Coakley, who skilfully lampoons the distinctive quirks of the characters’ respective regional accents, plays all of the characters with delightful relish and precise impersonations.

There is certainly much to enjoy in Alright Here...?, particularly in regards to Coakley’s performances, and the wry asides, random story elements and off-kilter camera angles provide a weirdness in the nature of Ben Wheatley’s off-beat black comedies. However, the essential problem quickly becomes evident over the course of this 25-minute chamber-piece: Coakley attempts to cram too much into one space and, since the characters barely interact, would have done better to separate the characters’ stories into episodic soliloquies in the style of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads [UK, 1988 – ] or Jackanory [UK, 1965-96]. Approaching them in this way would allow for more detailed and languid storytelling, fleshing out and breathing life into each personality.

In Coakley’s defence, this is clearly a product of cultural circumstance, and the one-man show construct was presumably a procedure externally and arbitrarily enforced. Ideally, with the help of a small and skilled production crew, and delivered with patience and maturity, this project could have legs as a televisual or web-based series. We are overexposed to the oxymoron “less is more” but, in the case of Alright Here...?, perhaps more is more.

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