Trying to find a partner is a tough process, and one that has not been helped by the advent of social media – dating apps have, to my mind, made the process easier and, as a result, so much crueller. Still, back in the day, we had speed dating events, and they were horrific in a different way. Inside No 9 combines the two horrors of speed and online dating into ‘Love Is a Stranger’, an intriguing instalment with lots going for it – but one that the writers fail to bring together into a satisfying whole.
Vicky (Claire Rushbrook) is a single woman ready for a night at home, braving the terrifying world of online speed dating as she searches for a new man. It’s often a dreadful experience, and the slew of unsuitable figures who crop up give Vicky a lot of time to reflect on her dates. Could one of these people really be the one? But, amid the dating dilemma, there’s also a hint of danger in the air – a number of singletons have been killed in recent weeks, murdered by the so-called Lonely Hearts Killer. Might one of the potential suitors be the killer?
We culminate with a bizarre final scene that just seems to stop, and a final line that doesn’t land, and it’s a real let-down
There are two ways to approach ‘Love Is a Stranger’, and I think one of the ways yields a much more interesting viewing experience than the other. It’s clear that the question of the Lonely Hearts Killer is going to hang over the episode, from the opening radio dialogue to a sequence of a mysterious figure arriving at Vicky’s house, boasting some iconic, black-gloved hands. However, the eventual trajectory of this narrative is fairly obvious from the off (according to both me and a lot of people on Twitter within the first few minutes – everyone had this one pegged), and the journey there is not particularly engaging in its own right. We culminate with a bizarre final scene that just seems to stop, and a final line that doesn’t land, and it’s a real let-down.
The better way to think about it is a series of five-minute films, each one seeing Vicky interact with a new suitor, and that way is actually quite charming. Vicky goes up against some grotesque figures, such as a creepy gardener (Matthew Horne) or a woman who claims to be stuck in the wrong side of the chat (Frances Barber). But there are also lot of laughs to be had, particularly in Shearsmith’s role as a no-nonsense old man or Pemberton’s jaunty Rubik’s cube solver. There’s a lot of heart here, especially in one of the dates, and more laughs than last week’s more overtly comedic episode was able to deliver.
It’s Rushbrook who helps salvage ‘Love Is a Stranger’, which is sadly less than the sum of its many great parts
Much of the episode hinges on Rushbrook’s performance, and she’s sensational here – you have a real sense of Vicky, and her responses to the multiple dates are funny, empowering and in some cases heart-breaking. She does a lot with a glance or a twitch in the corner of her mouth, and it’s all the more impressive given that she’s acting against a screen. In relation to many of the more comedic moments, hers is a very human performance that hits hard (evoking some of the show’s more emotional episodes, such as ‘The 12 Days of Christine’ or ‘Love’s Greatest Adventure’).
It’s Rushbrook who helps salvage ‘Love Is a Stranger’, which is sadly less than the sum of its many great parts due to a framing narrative that is both obvious and not particularly engaging in its own right. As a result, it falls a little flat from the off, and sadly the well-drawn characters don’t bring enough heart and laughter to get the episode across the finish line in a satisfying way, something that’s a great shame.