Playhouse Presents, Sky Arts’ largely excellent series of one-off quirky dramas, is inevitably scattershot in the quality of its output, but its ability to draw together top writers and starry performers makes it worth the watch regardless.
The latest series continued last night with Foxtrot, a tensely scripted drama about an ill-fated kidnapping by an all-girl gang, written by acclaimed playwright Polly Stenham.
Billie Piper and Alice Sanders starred as the rookie hostage-takers Badger and Fox, who are introduced throwing shapes to 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’ as the pull into a typically drab motorway services just to clarify that we are in gritty British crime-drama territory here.
The girls, under the orders of their chillingly stern boss Mrs Delloway (Lindsay Duncan, who also starred in Stenham’s debut hit That Face), have kidnapped Ben Wishaw’s Ezra and wait it out in a pokey motel room until Delloway gives them permission to release him. However, their best laid plans go awry, as such things are wont to do, when they learn that they’ve nabbed the wrong Wishaw, taking the mark’s mentally handicapped twin brother by mistake, which leaves the girls in a rather sticky situation.
This is Stenham’s first TV drama, yet she has adroitly transferred her usual themes from the stage to the small screen. Like That Face and Tusk Tusk, Foxtrot centres on a dysfunctional family where, though not actually related, Badger and Fox squabble like siblings (“Seriously, you strip in a burka?”) and cower under the penetrative whisper of their matriarchal boss Mrs Delloway. Lindsay Duncan’s performance is a masterful study in the power of restrained anger as she rolls-off a string of expletives without breaking the rhythm of her speech to show she is in complete control.
Foxtrot is also a study in escalating anxiety and emotional desperation as Badger and Fox’s relationship becomes more fractious as their attempts to pacify an intentionally erratic Ezra become increasingly fervid.
These first 20 minutes or so are some of the most intense, exhilarating and well-crafted writing the series has ever seen, driven by three powerful performances from Piper (once again playing a prostitute), Sanders and Wishaw, but then it seems to run out of time.
The ending feels rushed and not fully formed as the girls make a hasty escape. Fox blurts out something alluding to past abuse that is meant to explain why she pretends to be a boy but which lacks the poignancy and care to be effective, as the plot careens towards an obvious character twist that betrays the steady, considered build-up of the first 20 minutes.