“Forget about the past, you can’t change it. Forget about the future, you can’t predict it. Forget about the present…” (Maggie, ‘Nana’: ‘Nana’s Party’)
These words on Nana’s birthday card that she proudly reads out to her family gathered to celebrate her 79th birthday succinctly sum up the predicament of the story’s main characters, trapped by a set of circumstances gradually revealed to be those of domestic hell.
‘Nana’s Party’ features the twin hearts of darkness – suburbia and family. Associated with and notably explored in the works of Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s superlative take on suburban family life combines pitch-dark farce, intense emotional drama and an exploration of familial pain to excruciatingly brilliant effect.
The story opens with a rapid response car speeding down a well-to-do residential road & a paramedic making his way to the front door of No 9, screams for help coming from inside. We then go back several hours to the events preceding this apparent emergency. Angela neurotically makes final preparations for her mother’s 79th birthday celebrations as husband Jim gleefully sets up a practical joke to play on brother-in-law Pat, involving a large fake birthday cake. He thinks hiding underneath the cardboard cake with his head sticking out through a hole in a table laden with party food is the perfect ruse to give Pat a shock when he’s asked to move the cake. Potential maiming points are placed on and around the mock-up cake, which stands resplendent in pink sugar paste, as both the party’s centrepiece and the prospective source of damage for a practical joke that the audience has been primed to anticipate will go calamitously wrong in some way for at least one of the unfortunate party-goers.
The cornerstone of the script however & indicative of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s supreme artistry is that they subtly & cumulatively show how the lives of those gathered at the birthday celebrations are already damaged.
Beneath the immaculate domesticity of Jim and Angela’s home there are signs of cracks & rifts in their relationship. Angela’s obsessive cleaning and compulsive need for order imply an emptiness and enveloping sadness in her life that she fills by striving for ideal home perfection and a class conscious need to be ‘proper’ and superior (“all Marks” food, the mispronunciation of ‘butcher’) Jim deals with feelings of domestic discontentment by taking refuge in the garden ‘deck house’, to spend hours watching ‘Countdown’ videos. Directing their second ‘Inside No 9’, Pemberton & Shearsmith beautifully capture the fissures in Jim & Angela’s marriage with a keen eye for suggestion through visual composition, using a telling wide shot of the couple conducting a conversation on separate sides of the wall dividing the kitchen and lounge as a metaphor for the chasm. However, the traces of unease in Jim and Angela’s marriage are nothing compared to the visceral relationship of Carol (Angela’s sister) and husband Pat. It is a marriage that has ossified into pure bitterness for Carol, her husband an object of hate and contempt for her to emotionally pummel away at. Pat copes by seemingly not taking anything seriously, by playing the fool. His prankster persona, quipping away with feeble one-liners & armed with a ready supply of practical jokes, is worn as protective armour, a distancing mechanism from the extremely stressful situation that he is living with. Pat appears merely to be a pink cardigan-wearing idiot (the colour matches the icing on the joke birthday cake) He is a figure who might easily be dismissed as simply a walking joke, almost literally given the colour of his cardigan. Skilfully playing with audience assumptions, Pemberton & Shearsmith show, by the very nature of how awful & old-fashioned Pat’s jokes are, that this is all for effect, a tired going-through-the-motions routine, done as a way of coping with and subsuming his pain. Carol is in the grip of an alcohol addiction, one that she pathetically still tries to hide. She proceeds to pour drink down her throat, from a sun block lotion bottle, almost as soon as she & Pat arrive with Nana at Jim and Angela’s home. The drunker she gets the more Carol’s real feelings & emotions come to the surface, the niceties andetiquette of the family’s birthday celebration soon forgotten. She clumsily tries to bond with Jim & Angela’s teenage daughter, Katie, in her bedroom. In a brilliantly played scene by Lorraine Ashbourne and Eve Gordon, Carol’s hidden sorrow becomes distressingly visible, when she asks Katie if she thinks she would make a good mother.
In her drunken state, Carol’s appalling behaviour & invective against Pat are lacerating. It is when she is at her most vicious to him that we see Pat’s true nature come out. With dignified sadness and melancholic stoicism, he loyally defends and protects his wife. Some of ‘Nana’s Party’s most affecting moments are when Pat reacts to his wife’s unrelenting cruelty with quiet understanding and sympathy. Reece Shearsmith’s understated acting – his eyes are pools of sadness and pain – is done with beautiful, touching simplicity.
The searing domestic horror at the heart of ‘Nana’s Party’ make the laughs uncomfortable as they’re intertwined with an underlying darkness, gained and earned through characters all trying to block out and hide the unhappy reality of their lives: Carol announces to Katie at one point, as she holds the sun block lotion bottle filled with alcohol, “This is my block”, but Jim, Pat & Angela have their own blocks too. Each of these characters is perceptively drawn with lines of weight and depth behind them, which convey how their lives are caught up in the dynamics of the past & present that have accumulated over time as they do in all families, through the secrets and lies that build up and coalesce in them: “You take yours off first” retorts Pat pointedly to Carol, when she tells him to take off a joke werewolf mask he is wearing. The suburban secrets and lies spill out as the past catches up with the present, out-of-control emotions and prearranged practical jokes all come together at the story’s climax in beautifully paced scenes of dark domestic farce, which build with intricately plotted precision, perfect timing & cumulative effect to reach a dizzying full speed rush of a denouement, akin to a helter skelter ride.
The hoax birthday cake is the symbolic catalyst for the family secrets to finally leak out, with it set up as a tantalizing secret listening hole. Angela is made to swap places under the table with an insistence Jim, thereby teasing the audience (and panicking Jim) with the possibility that everything is being overheard by her. Things are said with increasing abandon because the protagonists (apart from Jim) believe they’re alone & unheard. The irony is that they are, as an unobserved Angela has departed from her hiding position underneath the fake cake.
At first the secrets divulged are merely embarrassing (Jim’s ‘Countdown’ videos are a euphemism for hardcore VHS porn) but when an intoxicated Carol appears the depth of her feelings for Jim soon become apparent and as these secrets are shed the damage cannot be undone. The degree to which the pair were involved with each other extended to an affair in which Jim promised to have a baby with Carol. In the wake of this extramarital relationship all Carol has left to cling to are impossible fantasies, her emotions left vulnerable and exposed. Lorraine Ashbourne’s extraordinary playing of these scenes, and the depth of emotional anguish she reaches, is harrowing to watch.
The zenith of farcical heights are then reached when Pat’s schoolboy prank of plastic spiders in ice cubes almost cause Nana to choke to death. On top of this, a tear-stained, distraught Carol is left with a blackened face from dirty face soap placed in the downstairs toilet by Pat. Intimating how easily practical jokes can spectacularly backfire hints at what is to come for main instigator Jim. Then a strippergram arrives dressed as a paramedic (the one seen rushing towards the house at the beginning) to perform a ‘Casualty’ theme music striptease for the old lady as a birthday present courtesy of Pat, who meanwhile has managed to electrocute himself with a phone charger.
Moving deftly from emotional chaos, with the trauma and excoriation of Carol’s revelations, to pure farce bathos without missing a beat, is a perfect illustration of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s unparalleled mastery of shifts in tone. The domestic destruction that ensues at the family gathering through the emblematic hoax cake is suffused with just deserts irony. The practical joke devised by Jim has ended up damaging him the most, with the accidental exposure of his extramarital affair. The outcome is the collapse of his world and the prospect of a future without his wife and daughter. With their bags packed, Angela & Katie depart the house as Nana gleefully reads out her ‘past, future and present’ birthday card message once more, concluding “Isn’t it a scream”. The line’s double meaning and the mordancy behind it is reinforced with a concluding long shot of Jim standing in the middle of the living room in isolated turmoil, all alone with his regrets. It is a perfect visual full-stop to the densely plotted & emotionally intense events that have gone before it.
The penultimate ‘Inside No 9’ of series two has all of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s distinctive brilliance, balancing comedy and drama in perfect symmetry, beautifully nuanced & crafted with meticulous, almost breathtaking command.
What makes ‘Nana’s Party’ remarkable is the depth of emotional pain reached in the story, explored through Carol’s character, which stands at variance to the quiet agonised poignancy of Pat, whilst sharing sympathy and compassion for both. It is this, juxtaposed with the unleashing of pure farce and a melancholic sadness permeating the whole piece, which makes it so memorable. As you watch it, you just know it couldn’t have been written by anybody else other than Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Directors…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Maggie ‘Nana’…Elsie Kelly