This review of episode five of Inside No 9 could easily be a very short one: 5 out of 5. So far, every episode has been able to hit a stride very quickly, seemingly never affected by the anthology format that can require a lot of character and situational awareness to be condensed into a small space of time. Thankfully Pemberton and Shearsmith have managed to offer detailed characters without presenting caricatures so that the viewer is completely aware of that character from the very beginning without being force-fed it their motives.
This week’s episode The Understudy offered a mix, I would argue, of the previous two episodes – the dialogue-reliant Last Gasp and the disturbing tone of Tom and Gerri, to great effect. By mixing the two this episode feels like the complete package and honestly, one of the episodes I would be most likely to show to someone unfamiliar with their work to showcase just how well they can balance comedy and horror.
While this episode certainly leant more to the horror genre, with one effect being particularly nasty, even when viewed by a hardened horror fan, there are still some of the funniest lines from the writing duo I’ve heard. I won’t spoil any of them here so as not to spoil the inevitable ‘mood whiplash’ that viewers will undergo during the episode.
Again, The Understudy is confined to one location, in this case the dressing room of performer in Macbeth, the boorish Tony (Steve Pemberton) who makes loud remarks about assistant Kirstie (Rosie Cavaliero) bringing him his juice and also about hating his neighbours visiting the show. Waiting in the wings, quite literally, is Jim (Reece Shearsmith) as Tony’s understudy patiently watching every show in case he is ever given the chance to perform the lead role. However, Jim’s self-doubt is never far from the surface and it seems like fiancé Laura (Lyndsey Marshal) is tiring of it.
In addition to an already stellar cast, I must make mention of Julia Davis, who despite being confined to an almost cameo role in this, shines as bossy and uptight Felicity. The wonderful thing about the episode is everyone is given at least one moment to ‘shine’ and the benefit of such a wonderful cast is that this is immensely entertaining and rewarding.
If the comedy comes mainly from dialogue it is the sound and direction that swings toward the grim. The sound in particular was very effective in this episode, with situations unfolding on stage made all the more bleak and disturbing by only listening to the event whereas seeing it would take too much away. If there is one thing I really love about Pemberton and Shearsmith it is that they want their viewers to work and engage with their writing and this is further evidence of that. The direction too does much to switch from the everyday to the macabre, often jarring the viewer with some wonderful visuals that really stay in the mind.
All in all, The Understudy may not have overtaken the initial impact of Tom and Gerri, which is still inspiring a multitude of theories (something rather confusing to me considering that all the necessary information is there in the episode and pretty simple to get), but it will remain a marker of some of Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing: deliciously dark and disarmingly witty.