Inside No. 9 series 2 episode 5 review: Nana’s Party

What’s more horrifying than vampires, psychos, or zombies? Family gatherings, as we saw in this week’s Inside No. 9...

This review contains spoilers.

2.5 Nana’s Party

This week’s episode of Inside No. 9, the second of this series to be directed by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, took as its setting something that’s bound to induce a shiver down most spines – a family birthday party. The kind of enforced fun where only one person, at the most, actually wants to be there, and every hug between family members (hardly) hides years of petty resentments. Pemberton and Shearsmith have picked some incredibly scary places for both series one and two – a housebreak, a creepy old mansion, a locked wardrobe – but Nana’s Party shows that the domestic is what’s really dangerous, and a person’s loved ones can be the cruellest.

Following a harried paramedic to the door of house number 9, before flitting back to the start of the tale with an ‘Earlier that day…’, the episode introduces a pretty standard (and recognisably well-observed) middle-class, white, formula-family. There’s the obsessively clean and uptight mother Angela (Clare Skinner) organising the party; father Jim (Pemberton), who’s desperate to get one up on his sister-in-law’s practical joke-playing husband; and their teenage daughter Katie (Eve Gordon). Joining them for some forced family time are some working-class relatives – irritatingly repetitive Nana Maggie (Elsie Kelly), bitter alcoholic and casually racist Auntie Carol (Lorraine Ashbourne), and her annoying husband Pat (Shearsmith).

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The genre we’re in for this episode appears, at first, to be farce, with events revolving around Jim’s attempt at a joke on Pat: hiding under a fake birthday cake on the nibbles table. The tension of knowing something is going to go wrong with that cake, with an ambulance due to be called at some point, is cranked up fantastically – will Nana get a nasty shock, or will Jim go up in flames when the candles are lit? It advances from farce to a slow-building nail-biter more frustratingly tense than even the most passive-aggressive of family meetings – that’s how well this episode is put together. Bitchy comments from your Nan about your mum’s interior decorating – nothing on this.

As with each half-hour shot of the series, nothing is as it seems on the surface. While other programmes would stick with the farcical comedy or the thrilling tension for the entire running time, Nana’s Party goes deeper than either. Possible end-scenarios with the cake change from minute to minute, as do the motivations of the characters, and our readings of their personalities. Pat starts off as a prat wearing a wolf mask to set up an unfunny joke, but turns out to be a kind husband to Carol (there’s something about sad eyes from Shearsmith that’s really ‘ouch, my heart!’. ‘Countdown marathons in the deck house’, aside). Carol, in turn, is judged as crude and uncontrolled by her sister Angela, but has in reality been emotionally wrecked by an affair with Jim. Even the ‘paramedic’ isn’t what he seems to be, performing a cold-eyed, drawn-out, and thorough strip to the theme tune from Casualty (hilarious work from Christopher Whitlow) for Nana Maggie after a tense moment in the action.

The repeated “Forget about the past, you can’t change it. Forget about the future, you can’t predict it” from Nana Maggie’s card, read out again at the end of the episode, gives Angela and Katie’s quiet departure from the family home – and Jim – even deeper impact. Surface level – we had a comedic episode about families and their squabbles, with a bit of mystery and lots of tension thrown in. In reality, Nana’s Party turned out to be a sharply observed study of the nature of close families. No one can hurt quite like the ones who love you. Also: nothing can break tension like a slow strip to the Casualty theme.