Thursday 17 October 2019

The Virtues review: 'I think we might be looking at one of the best dramas of the year'

5 stars

Stephen Graham and Shea Michael Shaw in The Virtues, Channel 4
Stephen Graham and Shea Michael Shaw in The Virtues, Channel 4

Pat Stacey

It’s turned into a Ferrero Rocher week for drama. Like “the Ambassador” in that cheesy 1980s advert for the knobbly, gold-wrapped hazelnut chocolate balls, the gods of TV have showered us with largesse in the shape of two fantastic new drama series on consecutive nights.

First, there was Russell T Davies’ nerve-janglingly on-point Brexitocalypse Years and Years. Now comes searing four-parter The Virtues, from the dream team of director Shane Meadows, co-writers Meadows and Jack Thorne, and star Stephen Graham, fresh from setting the latest Line of Duty ablaze as conflicted undercover cop John Corbett.

Like Corbett, Graham’s character in The Virtues, a painter and decorator called Joseph, is also an Irishman — from the Republic this time — who was transplanted to Liverpool as a child, which again allows him to use his own rich and musical Scouse. He’s another man haunted by his past. Here, though, it’s rooted in the dark history of this country’s care-home abuse scandals.

But when we first meet Joseph, who’s a recovering alcoholic, it’s the torments of the present that are tearing him apart.

His ex-partner Debbie (Juliet Ellis) is about to take his adored nine-year-old son Shea (Shea Michael-Shaw) to Australia, where she and her new partner David (Vauxhall Jermaine) are starting a fresh life.

Graham, one of the greatest actors currently drawing breath, gives a terrific portrayal of a man being emotionally eviscerated, cut by agonising cut, yet determined to keep a lid on his anguish for his son’s sake, and nodding along with Debbie’s insistence that “its the right thing to do, for all of us”.

If it’s rare right now to find a terrestrial drama that doesn’t feature cops, docs or period frocks, it’s rarer still to find one that eschews trickery and brings a near-documentary feel to such emotional material.

There’s a raw, fly-on-the-wall quality about both the photography and Meadows’ direction. The performances are so naturalistic, the dialogue so spare and real, you wonder how much the actors were allowed to improvise.

It’s especially evident in a wonderful scene where Joseph and Shea sit in the boy’s bedroom, having what’s effectively their last private moment together.

There’s such warmth and tenderness and heartbreak in the scene, it’s like peeking around a door at a real father and son.

“Will you be alright?” Debbie asks Joseph, as he’s about to leave after the four of them have had a final meal, full of enforced politeness and achingly banal conversation.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“You won’t...” (start drinking again).

“No, no, I won’t,” he says (he will).

What follows is an incredible sequence, excruciatingly painful to watch, that sets the nerve-endings tingling with horrible anticipation and captures the struggle of an alcoholic at war with himself.

There’s the hesitation, the agonising over the first one. There’s the tentative sip and grimace (the taste of beer and guilt). Then a gulp.

Gradually, this hitherto nice, quiet man, lubricated by beer, cut loose by a few double-vodkas, electrified by a snort of Charlie in the toilet, is the life and soul, buying drinks for people he’s just met, orchestrating a raucous sing-song.

The change is horrible and will be familiar to anyone who’s seen it happen (or been it as it’s happening). He’s gregarious, then narky and aggressive, then maudlin, and finally, falling-over sloppy. It’s a bruising tour de force by Graham.

As Joseph reels around Liverpool city centre, ranting and raving and talking s**t (visually, an extraordinary sequence), flashes of his past, snatches of childhood memory, resurface.

Waking the next morning covered in his own vomit, Joseph packs his bags and takes the ferry to Ireland to take on those old ghosts.

As with Years and Years, it’s early to be sticking my neck out, but I think we might be looking at one of the best dramas of the year.

The Virtues, Channel 4.

Read more: Shane Meadows reveals new Irish set drama for Channel 4 is inspired by traumatic incident from his own childhood

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