This Inside No. 9 review contains spoilers.
There’s old school comedy of the ‘Frank Spencer roller-skating under a lorry’ kind, and then there’s old school comedy of the ‘clowns, dukes, ruffs and rhyming couplets’ variety. The Inside No. 9 series six opener draws on the latter, improbably combining 16th century commedia dell’arte with a modern-day jewel heist. It’s proof, if any were needed, that there really is no formula to this show. Peculiarity is its only genre.
Commedia dell’arte sounds complicated because it’s Italian, but so does bruschetta, and that’s just tomato on toast. The term describes a form of historical theatre using a group of stock characters wearing masks and doing gags around a familiar plot. (You know how, in whatever decade you watch Neighbours, there’s always a bad boy and a busybody and a Karl Kennedy; it’s the same in commedia dell’arte but with the servant, the harlequin, the doctor, the captain, the lovers and so on.)
‘Wuthering Heist’ explains its conceit early on with a self-aware to-camera monologue by Columbina, a servant played by the always-great Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones, Upstart Crow). She tells us the reason for combining Italian Renaissance theatre with a crime caper is because they both use masks, “which is quite clever in a way, but still sounds like something a drama teacher would have a wank to. But hey, it’s series six, you’ve got to allow for a certain artistic exhaustion.”
Critics pre-empted, the thing gets underway. This time, the number nine is a (Covid-safe) warehouse where a criminal gang plans, and then suffers the fallout of, a diamond heist. The stock characters are Arlecchino (Kevin Bishop), Columbina (Gemma Whelan), The Doctor (Steve Pemberton), The Captain (Reece Shearsmith), Pantalone (Paterson Joseph) and Mario and Hortensia, a modern twist on the lovers (Dino Kelly and Rosa Robson).
What follows is an audacious mix of the rarefied and the extremely silly. There are beautifully presented bits of pantomime from director Guillem Morales, such as the montage’s glittery slow-motion explosion. And there are jokes so broad they’d never fit through the door of an ordinary Inside No. 9 episode (a misnomer really; there’s no such thing). Start to finish, it’s a gag-fest, with the open door policy on puns that its title suggests. The half-hour goes full pelt, leaping from stylised gangster slo-mo to slapstick pratfalls, with practically every line filled by innuendo and set-up/punchline one/two jabs.
Following tradition, almost everybody wears a mask, which adds to the WTF-ness. The masks don’t lose us any emotional connection to the characters because this isn’t a primarily emotional story. When most of them are killed after a Reservoir Dogs-style Mexican standoff, there are no tears to shed. Many of Inside No. 9’s instalments could serve as pilot episodes for entirely new series, but not this one. It’s a one-off explosion, not a sizzling fuse.
That said, Kevin Bishop managed to emote at Colly’s death even through his mask, and ultimately, it felt right and neat that Arlo (a stock fool rather than a crafty Harlequin) ended up with the loot. His surreal exit in the company of an acrobatic doppelganger echo left things on a note of pleasing weirdness.
The real appeal of the episode is the unalloyed lark of it all. As ever with Inside No. 9, just ask yourself where else on TV you could see anything quite like it. From the moment Reece Shearsmith enters, with his Dolmio ad Italian accent, military heel-clicks and lines rhyming ‘Hortensia’ with ‘dementia’, you’d need a hard heart not to be won over. Within that density of gags, there must be something for everyone. The Genoa, Chicago, Alaska, Trinidad and Tobago sequence was for me, and who knows, perhaps somewhere, there’s even a fan for the beef ‘rap’.
If anything, it could have stood to be even more unapologetic. The fourth wall-breaking asides to camera that deliberately yawned at both its arty-fartiness and juvenility perhaps pandered unnecessarily to potential criticism. [“I bet you’re loving this on the Cook’d and Bomb’d forum aren’t you?”] If you’re doing brio, do brio. Have your cake, eat it, make a lot of knob jokes about it, and don’t apologise for a single crumb.
Inside No. 9 continues on Monday the 17th of May at 9.30pm on BBC Two.