‘Inside No. 9′ Episode 5: ‘The Understudy’ review

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It can be a risky business, actors making up plays about actors. There’s every chance of so-called “civilians” being left cold by all the in-jokes and references to uniquely theatrical devices in the pursuit of a self-pleasuring gag.

Thankfully, that doesn’t happen in tonight’s episode, although it could have been a very close call: this week’s episode of Inside No. 9 is Macbeth re-told as – well, as Macbeth, complete with intertitles telling us what act we’re watching. We’re referring to this episode as a play, and the fact that it’s all set in a single location backstage (dressing room no. 9) heightens and celebrates the theatricality of the piece.

When people complain that telly isn’t like it used to be, that there’s no longer anything like Play for Today on our screens, they should be directed to this episode: this is exactly the type of thing they’re yearning for. Pity then, that there aren’t more people watching it. But that appears to be the curse of Pemberton and Shearsmith; to only have their work devoured by an appreciative audience after the final episode has aired.

This week, Pemberton plays Tony Warner, an egotistical, bombastic, and presumably brilliant actor tackling one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. It’s a grotesque, but like all of Pemberton’s grotesques, there’s a vital strand of humanity running through him.

Reece Shearsmith continues to be quite the chameleon, each new character nuanced with texture and tone, which is a neat trick when you’re playing what’s essentially the ’normal’ person. In this, he’s Jim, the understudy to Tony, and essentially Macbeth in casual clothing.

Lyndsey Marshall delivers a version of Lady Macbeth that’s better than a lot of actual Lady Macbeths that we’ve seen – her delivery of “You just don’t want it enough” is coloured with rage, passion, contempt, despair and genuine love, all within seven syllables.

There’s a great cameo from Julia Davis in what is almost literally a thankless role – she’s Felicity, the company manager. Everything comes together to provide a pleasing riff on Shakespeare’s tragedy, while providing enough twists and upsets before the curtain falls.

We’re already looking forward to the next episode. Hell, we’re already looking forward to the next series.

Aired at 10pm on Wednesday 5 March 2014 on BBC Two.

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