It’s not quite Tales of the City, it’s far removed from Jonathan Harvey‘s last outing Gimme Gimme Gimme, and it shares a lot in tone with his classic Beautiful Thing – welcome to Beautiful People. Based on the memoirs of Barney’s fashion director Simon Doonan, Harvey has crafted a hugely enjoyable and diverse ensemble, eschewing the BBC stage set for a filmed comedic drama with a killer soundtrack. Rather than going for the cheap belly laughs of his last BBC comedy, he opts for a gentler tone, with sly character observations and the same fairy tale quality of Beautiful Thing. It radiates the same charm, which is in no small measure down to the outstanding cast.
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Olivia Colman (Harriet from Green Wing, remember?) is stellar as Simon’s absurdly aggressive yet unconditionally supportive mum, aided by Meera Syal as her mad, blind cousin. And Luke Ward-Wilkinson is a delight as young Simon, with very sharp comic timing and who acts at least as well as his adult counterparts. Teenage and twentysomething Simon (who narrates the show) are wonderful storytellers, showing us an unexpected slice of nineties life in Britain (not quite the timeframe for the real Doonan but who cares?), often falling into the absurd but never slapstick. He’s aided and abetted by his best friend Kylie (the fabulous Layton Williams – far more fabulous and camp than anyone his age should be, and that’s not counting his high kick!), and it would be wrong to overlook the McArdle as his father and Ash as his sister, who complement the bigger stars effectively.
Everything plays to Harvey’s strengths – from Brenda Fricker’s appearance as Simon’s mentally ill grandmother through to Tameka Empson’s (Leah from Beautiful Thing and latterly of Three Non-Blondes fame) cameos, and his slice of life in 90’s Reading (off the real Doonan’s age somewhat but who’s counting?) is both engaging and challenging, just as his 90s Thamesmead was in his most famous work. The surface may be fairy tale-like, but the darkness of the real world is always there, bubbling underneath. Harvey is such a good playwright though and keeps things almost effortlessly balanced; it’s such a delight when his theatrical strengths make it to the screen. If only more British comedy could be as old fashioned and accessible as this.