Photo: BBC/Sophie Mutevelian

Inside No 9 – ‘Zanzibar’

For those decrying the lack of any substance in the schedules, fear not – Inside No 9 is back. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s dark anthology series is now on its fourth season, but it steers clear of the dark for an opening episode unlike anything they have ever done. ‘Zanzibar’ pays homage to Shakespeare and farce, and proves a uniquely fun piece of drama.

The number 9 of our opening episode is the ninth floor of the Hotel Zanzibar. There, various guests gather – a foreign prince (Rory Kinnear) and his murderous bodyguard (Shearsmith), an old woman suffering from memory loss (Marcia Warren) and her worried son (Pemberton), a dissatisfied woman (Hattie Morahan) and her eager boyfriend Gus (who looks identical to the Prince, and is also played by Kinnear), the suicidal Mr Green (Bill Paterson) – eager for a memorable night, be it filled with murder or romance. Filling out the cast are some of the hotel’s staff – bellboy Fred (Jaygann Ayeh), maid Colette (Helen Monks), hypnotist Vince (Kevin Eldon) and prostitute Tracey (Tanya Franks)

From this set-up, things get very Shakespearean, with a good helping of farce – it is a take-off of The Comedy of Errors, with princes, mistaken identity and people falling in love with the wrong person all appearing, and the dialogue is delivered in iambic pentameter (a way of writing where words match the rate of the human heartbeat – for the record, I’m neither clever nor cultured enough to be able to tell you this without copious amounts of research). The actors also take time to speak directly to the camera, conveying their inner thoughts and the impression of stage on screen.

The material is anchored by a wonderfully tight script

  Now, I found a lot of this theatre set-up to be quite annoying when the episode started, but you get used to it very quickly, and it fits this world perfectly. It helps that the wordplay is absolutely dazzling, full of puns (especially when Tanya gets in on the action) and top-notch rhymes (‘Magnus Magnusson’ and ‘bum’ is a good example). It also helps that the material is anchored by a wonderfully tight script (one that lets the viewer keep up with the many threads, and ensures that every development and dilemma feels earned) and some top-quality acting – Kinnear, as two parts, takes top billing.

This episode was nice and funny (the Prince confusing the old lady with the prostitute he ordered being a particular highlight), and as an experiment in a self-contained episode, ‘Zanzibar’ was a massive success. Where it lacked, in comparison to some of Inside No 9’s other episodes, was darkness or any real twists in the tale, but that worked to this episode’s favour – any darkness would have been out-of-place here. Much though I enjoy the twists, ‘Zanzibar’ was tightly structured enough and the farce set-up would have detracted from any massively shocking developments.

An old-fashioned comedic farce that pays homage to our greatest ever playwright

‘Zanzibar’ sees Shearsmith and Pemberton at the more playful end of their Inside No 9 spectrum, with an episode that could almost be a stage play – an old-fashioned comedic farce that pays homage to our greatest ever playwright. It’s a blast to watch and, if the rest of the series keeps up this level of quality, we’re in for another fantastic run!

Next week: Double act Cheese (Shearsmith) and Crackers (Pemberton) reunite after 30 years, but the incident that caused them to fall out returns to the limelight…

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