Tuesday 25 July 2017

Paula review: 'A strange, confusing and inconsistent piece of work'

Conor McPherson's series for the BBC stars Irish actress Denise Gough

Denise Gough in Paula
Denise Gough in Paula

Pat Stacey

RATS are plentiful in three-part BBC-RTE co-production Paula, which was filmed in Northern Ireland — Belfast, presumably — but appears to be set in Dublin.

There’s a rat, and possibly more than one, in the basement of the house belonging to the title character, a chemistry teacher played by Denise Gough.

There’s a rat in her kitchen, too, a two-legged one this time, called Philip (Edward MacLiam), one of her colleagues at work, the PE teacher to be precise.

Even without a coat of fur, a long tail and two twitching ears, Philip is a slimy, slippery, creepy sort: married with the lovely wife and two lovely kids that are obligatory for love-rats in TV dramas, he’s been having an affair with Paula.

“Does Diane (aforementioned lovely wife) even suspect you’re messing about?” Paula asks him.

“She just thinks I’m depressed,” he says, flashing an annoying little smirk. See! Slimy, slippery and creepy.

Paula has ended the affair, although Philip seems to have a problem getting this information through his skull.

He keeps phoning her, turning up outside her house, mauling her at school when he thinks the disapproving headmaster isn’t around, and sending her cards with sleazy little cartoons he’s drawn himself of the two of them at it. Maybe he should have avoided PE and taught art instead.

Perhaps we should cut Philip a little slack, though, because Paula doesn’t seem to be as committed to ending the affair as she claims.

“We said the last time this wouldn’t happen again,” she reminds him when he turns up at her flat, before wavering and flirting with him, only to then tell him to sling his hook.

It’s strange, confusing and inconsistent behaviour, and she’s a strange, confusing and inconsistent character.

But then Paula, written by acclaimed playwright, screenwriter and director Conor McPherson, is a strange, confusing and inconsistent piece of work as a whole.

Paula hires hunky handyman James (Tom Hughes, from spy thriller The Game and period drama Victoria), who has an unmistakable whiff of sulphur about him, to sort out the basement problems and is soon coming on to him.

One minute he’s telling her the basement will need damp-proofing, the next she’s making eyes at him over a drink. The minute after that, they’re thrashing wildly about in bed.

“I have never slept with a man I just met,” she tells him afterwards. “You could be anyone. You could be some psycho for all I know.”

Whatever else he might be, James is certainly one odd fish. He has a weird domestic set-up, yet to be explained, whereby he shares a flat with two women (Siobhán Cullen and Aoibhinn McGinnity, who spends nearly all of her few short scenes lying in bed).

'My Dad will be mortified when he sees the sex scene' - Irish actress Denise Gough speaks to Independent.ie

He appears to be sleeping with both of them separately and has quite possibly fathered children by them as well. It’s hard to be sure when McPherson leaves everything so maddeningly ill-defined.

There’s yet another woman in James’s life: his mother, who lives in a nursing home, presumably because of senility or a nervous breakdown.

When James comes to visit, he takes her out for a trip to the bank so he can clean out her account. Once again, how he’s allowed to get away with this is unclear.

It’s hard to pin down from this fractured first episode exactly where Paula is coming from, let alone going. Is it a psychological drama, a psycho thriller or something else entirely?

McPherson is known for including an element of the supernatural in plays like The Weir and The Seafarer, and there’s a slight suggestion of that here.

Since BBC2 isn’t showing Paula until tonight, 24 hours after RTE1, the Beeb, as the senior production partner, is understandably sensitive about spoilers. Reviewers had to agree not to reveal certain surprise plot details.

So I haven’t revealed them. But I’m not convinced they’ll be enough to compensate for such a frustratingly opaque opening.

Television is snowed under at the moment with dramas which teasingly withhold information to build intrigue. All Paula builds is irritation and impatience.

Paula is available on RTE Player and is also on BBC2 tonight at 9pm

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