Review: Paula (S1 E1/3), Thursday 25th May, BBC2

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Fending off the attentions of randy colleague Philip (Edward Macliam), sozzled, thirtysomething chemistry teacher Paula Denny (Denise Gough) embarks on a one-night stand with James (Tom Hughes), a younger man who is trying unsuccessfully to keep two women and two children on a builder’s wages. And so we were off on this new, three-part thriller.

James is conning his senile mother out of her pension, while Paula is dealing with her drug-addict brother Callum, who lives in a garage, and with rats in her basement, and that’s not a metaphor. We can’t help thinking that rat poison will be put to some sinister use, but when James comes to examine her basement, they bond over her Pink Floyd collection, and he’s soon sorting out her problems downstairs, if you know what we mean.

While Paula is clearly a bit unstable, James seems potentially unhinged, fixated with Paula’s old family photos, spinning yarns about his strange domestic setup and having hallucinations of spooky children in the back of his van.

At loggerheads with her parents and on a warning at work, Paula turns down a second round with both men, but James takes it into his head to blackmail Philip, and after an encounter in a rain-soaked scrapyard, Philip ends up battered to death.

The corpse is found in an appropriately gloomy quarry, and hard-bitten copper McArthur (Owen McDonnell), who of course is divorced and unshaven, is called in to ponder gloomily. Initially suicide is suspected, but when Philip’s phone messages to Paula are found, she’s called in for questioning.

After stumbling into the familiar ‘referring to the victim in the present tense then correcting herself’ trope, Paula breaks down – but at this stage she doesn’t seem to be under suspicion. Meanwhile James is taking his extended family out for a slap-up Happy Meal.

Perhaps a low-rent Appletree Yard or a cheaper re-run of The Fall, Paula is described a ‘revenge thriller’, but this opener doesn’t give much sense of either. The rain-sodden streets could be just about anywhere – if it wasn’t for the reference to Euros, we wouldn’t necessarily know it’s set in the Republic of Ireland (though like The Fall, it’s shot in Belfast).

Is Paula going to turn into a stalking victim, finally bludgeoning James and burying him in her basement? Or is James misunderstood, perhaps the victim of an abusive childhood, endlessly re-running scenes of torture and acting them out on his extended family? Will McArthur turn out to be similar to the ineffectual Jim Burns of The Fall, or James like the manipulative (but self-deluding) Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan)? Certainly he has the same dark, brooding, unshaven good looks, and appears to be the sort women would write to on Death Row.

As all women on television who have one-night stands have to be punished (particularly in patriarchal societies), no doubt Paula will have to suffer more before she achieves absolution. Playwright Conor McPherson’s first TV drama could be accused of being stagey – but we know from the trailers that there is explosive action yet to come. So will it be Paula’s knowledge of chemistry, rising damp or prog-rock that comes to her aid at her time of crisis?

Chris Jenkins
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9 thoughts on “Review: Paula (S1 E1/3), Thursday 25th May, BBC2

  1. Mike Sargent

    I wonder how James managed to get Philip’s body out of the fenced compound?
    It didn’t show Ireland in a very good light! Torrential rain, grinding poverty, bonkers unhinged people.
    I wasn’t particularly engaged by it, but I suppose I will tune in again.

    Like

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