This review contains spoilers.
In series one’s The Understudy, Inside No. 9 gave us an updated take on Macbeth. Here, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton put their own twist on Shakespearean comedy with an episode set entirely in a hotel corridor and written entirely in iambic pentameter, the clever sods. Regular brilliance clearly wasn’t presenting these two enough of a challenge.
It’s a challenge they pull off with relish. The writing’s smart and self-aware (“Like this iambic foot, I’m stressed, you’re not”) while the gags are a bawdy delight. Shakespeare never rhymed ‘bum’ with ‘Magnus Magnusson’, but you know he would have done, given the opportunity. The script fizzes with wordplay while the plot is as expertly tangled as we’ve come to expect from this show.
This pacy half-hour feels over in a flash. As ever, it’s remarkable how much an episode of Inside No. 9 can get done inside its timespan. The choreography of this episode in particular, with its parade of opening and closing doors, exits and entrances, is deftly handled. David Kerr, who directed every episode of series one (and Russell T. Davies’ bubbly A Midsummer Night’s Dream), is back in charge and doing excellent work with this well-chosen cast.
The farce is anchored by Rory Kinnear as identical twins Gus and Rico. With a career that’s recently seen him in Bond movies, play Hamlet to acclaim at the National, and star in mainstream sitcom Count Arthur Strong, adaptability seems to be Kinnear’s specialism. Penny Dreadful fans will also know that this isn’t the first time he’s played multiple parts in the same show on TV – he’s clearly good value for money.
Jaygann Ayeh is charismatic as narrator Fred, the bellboy who ushers us onto the ninth floor of London’s Zanzibar Hotel and facilitates its guests’ unusual requests, while Helen Monks and Tanya Franks play with type as cheery chambermaid Colette and jaded sex worker ‘Red’. With talk of slots to fill and prick-ing her interest, Frank’s lines are a riot of ribald puns. With his talk of Tixylix and Schwarzkopf, Pemberton’s character Robert gives us Alan Bennett, Elizabethan-style.
The whole cast is a riot, with special mention for Marcia Warren as Robert’s bumbling, senescent mother, the real clown of the episode.
An element often easy to overlook in TV comedy, the music, is also worthy of particular praise. Christian Henson’s score moves from romantic to ominous and back as quickly as this nimble, varied story demands. The piano theme for Amber and Gus’ romance is particularly lovely.
“One sometimes has to paint in primary colours,” says Kevin Eldon’s hypnotherapist, Vince de Trance, and with characters named Amber, Green, Red, Mr Brown and Mr Blue, that’s what’s been done here. As Mr Brown, or procrastinating assassin Henry, Shearsmith performs the episode’s most memorable moment – a furious Hokey Cokey dressed as the Reservoir Dogs character for which he appears to be named. It’s just those kind of unexpected confluences and unsettling turns for which Inside No. 9 demands, and receives, devotion.
Zanzibar is a kind of greatest hits compilation of Elizabethan plots. There are identical twins separated at birth, a sleeping draught, a love spell, a servant plotting to usurp his master… basically, everything audiences like to see in Shakespeare’s comic work: comedy, love, and a bit where an octogenarian becomes an unwitting purveyor of sexual kinks.
“It would be nice to have a happy ending,” says meddling maid Collette, and there’s certainly one of those. Robert gets his mother back, Amber falls in love with Gus again, Henry’s plan is foiled, and the twins discover each other and their father. It’s all wrapped up so neatly in such short time, you almost wonder why Shakespeare had to bother with all five acts. Wasn’t the man supposed to be a genius?
Yet again, a new Inside No. 9 episode has arrived and expanded the definition of what this show can be: Grisly, sometimes. Unsettling, often. But playfully brilliant, always.