Inside No 9 returned to BBC Two last night for another six doses of bleak, surreal and stunningly well-crafted half-hour plays from the sharp creative minds behind The League of Gentlemen.
Each week Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s absurdist anthology series throws a clutch of eccentric characters into a different claustrophobic, off-kilter setting where the only constant is the number on the front of the door.
First up, La Couchette, a twisted and obscene comedy of manners set aboard an overnight train travelling from Paris to Bourg-Saint-Maurice that has a hint of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in its stinging twist.
Shearsmith plays Dr Maxwell, a finicky and irritable academic trying desperately to fall asleep before an important job interview with the World Health Organisation the following morning. Alas, any hope of actually getting some much needed shut-eye is thwarted by a motley collection of fellow passengers who seem determined to cause in ruckus inside the carriage.
One of the benefits of the anthology format is that it’s much easier to snare a brilliant cast when there’s no need for them to commit to a full series. In La Couchette, the eclectic mix of passengers are played by some of Britain’s finest performers including Julie Hesmondhalgh and Mark Benton as a squabbling married couple travelling to their daughter’s wedding, Jessica Gunning as a bawdy Australian backpacker and Jack Whitehall playing spectacularly to type as a young toff ‘slumming it’ in second class.
What’s most astonishing, though, is just how well Shearsmith and Pemberton are able to introduce and shape a set of such vividly idiosyncratic characters in only half an hour whilst also composing an intriguing tale that’s full of dark surprises.
The duo also have a remarkable gift for writing physical comedy with much of last night’s episode resembling a classic silent movie that relies less on silly one-liners and more on the subtle nuances within the performances and some clever use of sound to produce the laughs – one particular scene involving a seemingly ceaseless travel alarm elicits the biggest guffaws of the entire episode. Simple, yet extraordinarily effective.
Simply put, Shearsmith and Pemberton are two of the most talented and relentlessly imaginative writers working in Britain today.
It’s great to have them back.
Click here to watch Inside No 9 – ‘La Couchette’ on BBC iPlayer