Inside No 9 series 4 episode 1 review: Zanzibar (spoilers)

Spoilers.

This is now the fourth series of Inside No 9, which means by the time we’re done, there will be more episodes of this than the markedly more famous League Of Gentlemen¸ which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. There hasn’t yet been a film of Inside No 9  though, although it is presumably only a matter of time before Pemberton and Shearsmith decide to deliver an Amicus studios type portmanteau movie.

In the meantime, we have this, the first episode of the latest series and as may now be expected, the audience is not being eased in gently with a comparatively ‘easy’ episode: this story is told entirely in iambic pentameter, leading to some neat conversational cul-de-sacs as well as cute jokes (the ‘stress’ on one character having at least a double meaning). The series therefore starts on the right foot both figuratively and grammatically (even a song that’s thrown away near the end of the episode is a neat allusion to the style).

The Hotel Zanibar – appropriately enough – has just nine floors, and we’re introduced all the main characters by a suitably Puckish Fred (Yaygann Ayeh), a bellboy who’s discreet and fond of plain talking (‘It’s the only language I understand,’ he says). It’s not long before events reach farcical proportions, and while not all misunderstandings can be blamed on the bellboy, it’s up to him and his girlfriend Colette – played by Raised By Wolves and Upstart Crow favourite Helen Monks – to keep all the (soiled) plates spinning.

Way back in series one, when reviewing [http://cultbox.co.uk/reviews/episodes/inside-no-9-s01e05-episode-5-the-understudy-review]  The Understudy, (also directed by David Kerr), we suggested that those teaching Macbeth could do worse than stick that episode on for half an hour. We make a similar claim here for a broader understanding of Shakespeare: there’s a snatch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, blended with Twelfth Night and The Comedy Of Errors – or, as the old joke goes – it recalls that Shakespeare play where there’s a series of misunderstandings about a pair of twins. There’s some exquisite wordplay – and, as with all the best Shakespearean jokes, most of them work as straight dialogue even when you don’t spot the gag – and indeed, not all of the rhyming couplets precisely rhyme.

By the mid-way point, there are several plots whizzing by so quickly, it requires gripping on tightly to the hostess trolley to keep up with them all: Rory Kinnear plays the two young brothers who never quite see one another, and end up annoying the other characters through no fault of their own. Marcia Warren proves to be a good sport, and there’s a great turn from Kevin Eldon playing a hypnotist (but not an evil hypnotist ..). Pay close enough attention, however, and you’ll be able to spot the ‘hidden hare’ that’s been the favourite of regular Inside No 9  viewers.

In many ways, this is typical Inside No 9 fare – as if there was really any such thing: look at it closely, and the plot is elegantly simple. But the journey is beautifully convoluted and finely balanced. The reveal is clear for anyone who’s familiar with Shakespeare (and indeed, anyone who’s paying attention to Bill Patterson’s rhyming couplets about blue blood), but as always with Shearsmith and Pemberton, there are a couple more surprises to delight those who think they’ve got it all worked out before the end.

At one point, a character places a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his door, which might appear to be counterproductive to the aims of those behind Inside No 9. And while this first episode does not disturb, it’s smart, funny and fast moving, and does more work in thirty minutes than many comedies do in six episodes.

Welcome back.