There are very few things we as a species can claim to have in common, but our shared loathing of family gatherings is surely one of them.
Just the mere thought of the prospect of having to spend hours or, in the case of those interminable religious holidays, days trapped in the stifling confines of the family home whilst making enforced chit-chat with people with whom you have no obvious connection other than bloodline is enough to drive even the purest of minds to dark thoughts.
It’s this universal feeling that is gently skewered with sublime brilliance in Nana’s Party, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s twisted take on the domestic family drama.
On the surface, it all appears rather inviting. It’s Nana’s (Elsie Kelly) 79th birthday and to celebrate her daughter Angela has put on a lavish spread, which includes a huge cake (the Chekhov’s gun of sweet desserts, it transpires), while her hubby Jim (Pemberton) plots his next move in a childish, though seemingly harmless, prank war with his smarmy brother-in-law Pat (Shearsmith).
Obviously, it’s what lays beneath this charming exterior where the real intrigue is to be found, and Nana’s Party takes an increasingly dark and troubled turn as the tight boundaries of the family home cause long-simmering tensions to finally boil to the surface.
The half-hour unfolds with the air of a Mike Leigh drama, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s direction evoking the style of kitchen sink realism in their use of northern working class characters who have a Pinter-esque inability to communicate their feelings and cramped domestic settings in which to shoot the drama.
As with all The League of Gentlemen-duo’s writing, Nana’s Party works best when finding the tragic beauty in the mundane, using the claustrophobic environment of Angel and Jim’s plush home to create an uneasy tension that peppers every seemingly bland conversation about road works and bedroom décor as the mounting lies, secrets and betrayals each family member keeps from the others threatens to irrevocably split them apart.
And like the best Mike Leigh films, the real intrigue here sits with the clutch of complex and fascinating characters Shearsmith and Pemberton have created. Elsie Kelly is always a joy in the ‘barmy Nan’ role she played so memorably in Benidorm, and Claire Skinner plays an even more tightly-wound version of her anxious mother character in Outnumbered, spending more time fussing of the alignment of tassels on the lounge rug than she does enjoying her family’s company – a trait that gives the merest of hints as to what troubles her marriage faces.
Lorraine Ashbourne, too, gets to have a lot of fun as sun lotion-guzzling Carol, but also demonstrates an impressive emotional range as her character’s abusive and fragile nature comes to the fore in the most desperately ordinary of ways.
Pemberton once again plays the relatable everyman to perfection but this time with the added twist of giving his character a much darker personality than is initially apparent. Shearsmith’s character, on the other hand, is the complete reverse, emerging as a broken and vulnerable sad-sack through his wife’s betrayal after initially appearing to be a relentlessly wise-cracking tit.
While the overall tone of Nana’s Party is bleak and despairing, a welcome vein of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s trademark off-beat humour runs through the tale. A culminating scene of bizarre farce that involves a pensioner choking on phallic ice cubes, a sudden electrocution and the most inappropriate strip-tease imaginable acts as a relieving moment of levity after the desperate tension of the previous scenes.
It proves to be yet another example of the writers’ lulling the audience into a false sense of security, however, as the following scene immediately delivers an emotional gut-punch of an ending that offers a bleak, yet cathartic, pay-off for its main character’s despicable actions.
Nana’s Party might not give you nightmares or move you to tears like previous episodes in this second series, but it will most definitely give you the perfect excuse when declining your next invitation to a family get-together.
Click here to watch Inside No 9: Nana’s Party on BBC iPlayer