I’m loathed to talk too much about the twists and turns of Inside No.9 because even discussing it seems spoiler-ish to me. During their appearance on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Podcast, show creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton address this explicitly, talking about how the vaguest of allusions to the plot twist in The Usual Suspects completely ruined the film for them.
That being said, and despite the often vehement protestations from the creators (especially Shearsmith) the series does now have a reputation befitting the natural successor to The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales Of The Unexpected, of ending with a surprise twist.
What this season in particular has shown though, is that the twist is not the most important thing about the show. Already we have seen the writers play on our own expectations of a twist (in last week’s Paraskevidekatriaphobia) have the twist foreshadowed throughout the story (in the denouement of The Bones Of St Nicholas) or even treat the very idea of a twist as an afterthought as in Mother’s Ruin. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Love Is a Stranger does feature a twist, and that it’s not the most surprising of the series, but this didn’t affect my enjoyment at all. I’d always much prefer a twist that feels organic, and builds on the story and characters, than a shock that appears out of nowhere.
Vicky (Claire Rushbrook) is a mild-mannered charity shop worker, still recovering from the death of her mother, and attempting to get back onto the dating scene. Dipping her toe in the murky waters of online speed-dating, she endures a thankless night of encounters with self-centred, rude and callous potential partners (among them, Shearsmith and Pemberton). This being Inside No.9 though, there is an added sinister crinkle – could one of these men be the “lonely hearts killer” we hear about on the radio in the opening moments of the episode?
Structurally, this is up there with Thinking Out Loud and Once Removed in terms of audacity, even if it’s much more modest in it’s execution. On the surface the episode is simply a series of vignettes with a wraparound story featuring Vicky preparing for a date with a mysterious, leather glove wearing figure. However, each date lasts four minutes, and these all unfold in real time. It’s a virtuoso piece of writing, with every new character introduced and sketched out vividly in their brief screen time, and with a little twist in the tail of each date – it’s essentially an episode of Inside No.9 comprised of five miniature episodes!
The characters are all effectively and succinctly fleshed out in just four minutes, with a different take on each one, from Matthew Horne’s creepy gardener to Shearsmith’s pompous old man (seemingly a riff on a similar character played by Pemberton in The League Of Gentlemen – “Go out would you?”) who delivers a beautifully observed speech before the inevitable rug-pull.
With each encounter, another layer of Vicky’s character is stripped back, and this is beautifully portrayed by Rushbrook. She really grounds the episode, and she gives one of the series’ most subtle, humane, painfully affecting performances, recalling Jessica Hynes in last years underrated A Random Act Of Kindness or Sheridan Smith’s seminal turn in 12 Days Of Christine (and yes I know that’s a bold comparison). Her sad smile masks a lifetime of pain, and yet she manages to convincingly make her character vulnerable without ever feeling like a victim. She’s terribly insecure, dropping phrases and tidbits of information from previous dates into conversations, but she’s not a doormat, and as the night wears her down and she gets increasingly fed up, she finally finds her assertive self, to the point where she can finally talk honestly with the final date of the evening.
While it may ostensibly be a comedy, Inside No.9 always nails moments of realism and tenderness, in episodes like Love’s Great Adventure and Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, and this is another episode that combines the comedy with real pathos. Rushbrook’s character is so relatable, someone who is desperately lonely but doesn’t quite know how to navigate the world of internet dating.
Love Is A Stranger is another excellent episode in what is one of the strongest series of Inside No.9 yet. The poignancy of Rushbrook’s performance combined with the central narrative conceit and some characteristically strong writing makes this one of the most quietly ambitious episodes of the series. Yes ‘the twist’ might feel more obvious, but when everything else is so good, does that really matter?