This review contains spoilers.
Life is like riding a bike, said Albert Einstein, a thesis that went on to receive widespread support among the fridge magnet community. He meant that in order to keep your balance, you have to keep moving, but the comparison is also valid in that sometimes in life, you fall off. After going along blithely for ages, you’re hit out of nowhere and knocked to the ground.
That’s what happened to Joy Richards (Toni Collette) months before the beginning of Wanderlust. A therapist who dispenses psychodynamic and psychoanalytic couples counselling from her garden office, Joy was knocked down by a car while cycling.
Joy’s injuries provide some gentle laughs in a couple of Wanderlust’s much-publicised sex scenes. Undressing in front of her husband, Joy first hands him her surgical cane and undoes the Velcro on her medical wrist support. Later, discomfort forces her to swap hands in another sexual scenario. Her physical injuries are still on the mend, but the fractures in her long marriage to teacher Alan (Steven Mackintosh) are only just being felt.
Wanderlust has been adapted for the BBC and Netflix by playwright Nick Payne from his 2010 Royal Court production directed by Simon Godwin. That starred Pippa Haywood and Stuart McQuarrie, and came in at a neat ninety minutes. This one stars Colette and Mackintosh, and has been beefed up to six hour-long episodes. To serve the expanded runtime, Joy’s GP surgery has been swapped for couples’ counselling, cleverly enabling Payne to pull in any number of secondary relationship stories to wind around the central pillar of Joy and Alan’s marriage.
That relationship, as the title hints, is plump with affection but starved of passion. After simultaneous but separate and unplanned forays into sex with other partners, confessed to each other with comic matter-of-factness (“Joy, I’m really sorry but me and Claire had sex.” / “Alan, I tossed off a man from my hydrotherapy group” — Colette and Mackintosh are clearly in their element with Nick Payne’s witty, human script), Joy and Alan agree to experiment with having an open marriage. That’s the turning point episode one builds towards.
On its way there, Wanderlust describes modern love with one eye on comedy and the other on sadness. Its characters are lonely, failing to connect and stymied by desire. Joy is sexually dissatisfied, Alan gives in to temptation from frank, funny and freewheeling colleague Claire (Zawe Ashton). Their teenage son Tom (Joe Hurst) lusts after an older classmate oblivious to the fact that his funny best friend is head over heels in love with him. Their grown-up daughter is heart-broken after leaving her girlfriend. Neighbours Neil and Rita are separating. Underneath the ribald laughs, everyone is rimed with unhappiness and frustration.
There is ribaldry. Within the first few minutes, two characters have been interrupted masturbating. The first—Joy—by her son, is a situation so awkward it’s only bested by teacher Neil being walked in on by his colleague while pleasuring himself to an underwear catalogue, in the school staff room. There’s a lengthy failed seduction, and a lusty fumble, and talk of pornography, but this is no Carry On sex farce, despite the headlines treating it as such.
According to some, Wanderlust is “raunchy”, “racy”, “the rudest” and “most X-rated ever,” but they must all be talking about next week’s episode because I saw more human pain than flesh on display here.
Joy’s office, as you’d expect, is host to a selection pack of discontent. Her clients though, aren’t being lined up as subjects for easy ridicule. Royce Pierreson is an intriguing dramatic prospect as Jason, a man plagued by a recurring dream. Andy Nyman’s brief appearance as James, a client desperate to save his marriage while his wife scoffs from the other end of the sofa, provides one of the most affecting few minutes I’ve seen in a drama this year.
Sex, intimacy, love, failure to communicate and connect… Wanderlust treats serious themes with a light touch. In other hands, the set-up of a middle-aged couple seeking to put the spice back into their marriage, against the backdrop of a therapist’s couch, would be straight sitcom. This premise might prime us for mockery but what’s served up is poignant, and often painful honesty.
Wanderlust continues next Tuesday at 9pm on BBC One.