“Apparently once death seems possible, the idea catches on”
One of the things about winding down the theatregoing at Christmas is being able to catch up on some of the television that I rarely have time to watch normally, and doing so at my parents’ house is particularly ace because of their awesome telly. First up for me was The Town, an ITV three-parter written by one of the hottest playwrights in the country Mike Bartlett. Upping the ante was a cast that included Julia McKenzie, Andrew Scott, Douglas Hodge and also Phil Davis and Siobhan Redmond.
I have long been a fan of Redmond so I was pleased to see the opening moments of the show devoted to her as her character went about the rituals at the end of her day including saying goodnight to her husband as played by Phil Davis. I was then gutted as this proved to be a great case of misdirection as they were both then found dead the next morning by their teenage daughter Jodie, never to be seen again. As their son Mark returns to bury them in this provincial town he left 10 years ago to move to London, the show then deals with the difficulties in returning to a less than lamented hometown, combined with the growing sense that the deaths – recorded as a joint suicide – are less clear-cut than the police would seem to think.
Bartlett’s plays have largely been exceptional events and so it is inevitably the case that expectations on my part were high and thus easily not met. And whilst I didn’t dislike The Town, I did find it to be far from a compelling piece of drama. Its main issue was being packed full of topics and story strands that were barely touched upon or explored: three ITV episodes only allows for just over 2 hours of drama and yet we had city council politics, police corruption, lesbian florists and mysterious young undertakers, all alongside the main narrative thrust of Mark’s return to a town he would rather forget to take care of his determined but frail grandmother and his stroppy teenage sister.
And in these moments, The Town was strongest: the sense of estrangement from this provincial life and the suffocating intimacy that comes from feeling it hasn’t changed at all was perfectly judged, the frustration at being unable to return to the comfort of nights out in Holborn and instead having to revisit the pubs and clubs of teenage years just right, and I loved the wry sense of bleak humour that permeated the attempts to constantly say and do the right thing in the aftermath of a death. Scott was excellent here as was Julia McKenzie as the grandmother determined to take a job to help with the finances and Avigail Tlalim’s Jodie acting out in all sorts of dodgy ways.
But it wanted to be a murder mystery of sorts as well and in layering intrigues with Douglas Hodge’s police officer and Martin Clune’s cleverly cast mayor, it was aiming for an epic scope that it never quite achieved. It simply didn’t have enough room to really delve into the depths of this side of the story and so ended up coming across as quite rushed instead of complex, and thus nowhere near as affecting as it should have been. So not a bad effort and Bartlett’s gift for acute and astute dialogue is certainly still present, but ultimately something of a disappointment.