sat 08/08/2020

Alma's Not Normal, BBC Two review - bare-knuckle comedy pilot hits the spot | reviews, news & interviews

Alma's Not Normal, BBC Two review - bare-knuckle comedy pilot hits the spot

Alma's Not Normal, BBC Two review - bare-knuckle comedy pilot hits the spot

Great cast and outsized characters in Sophie Willan's new creation

Sophie Willan as Alma, Jayde Adams as Leanne

Creating the opening episode of a new comedy series is like flipping pancakes with one hand while playing the Moonlight Sonata with the other. You have to introduce your characters and invent the world they live in, while squeezing in enough plot to keep the action moving.

So high-fives to Sophie Willan, the first recipient of the BBC's Caroline Aherne writing bursary, for getting Alma’s Not Normal (BBC Two) off to a flyer. It’s a story of grungy, low-life Bolton, peopled with characters teetering between tragedy and farce. Willan plays Alma, the unemployed and barely educated daughter of drug-addict parents. Bad sex and petty crime are the common currency. “Don’t worry Alma love, I’ll shag yer if yer desperate,” one of her ex-boyfriend’s mates calls out cheerfully.

She has great support from a glittering cast. Her mum, Lin, is played with deranged energy, pink highlights and a hilarious set of new teeth by Siobhan Finneran, and is currently sectioned in a psychiatric hospital after committing arson. “My mum has drug-induced psychosis,” Alma explains, “which means she sometimes sets things on fire.” Houses, for instance. “I should be somewhere else like Rhyl, in a caravan park having a nice time,” Lin wails.

Alma gets more sense out of her gran Joan (Lorraine Ashbourne, pictured above with Finneran, Willan and Nicholas Asbury), a chain-smoking vision in leopard prints and addicted to fried spam (“Aldi’s own”). Joan fixes Alma with a beady eye, advises trying “feng-shooey” to ward off bad vibes, and issues deadpan lifestyle advice: “Dreaming’s not going to get you anywhere. That’s not going to put spam on the table, is it?”

Alma’s best friend is Leanne (Jayde Adams), an outsized character who aims to beat life itself to a pulp. When the girls go on a drunk karaoke night, Alma hurls herself into frantic Spice Girls gyrations, but Leanne does a majesically operatic "Time to Say Goodbye", doing both Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli.

Positive role models are thin on the ground, but Alma is inspired by “Winky Ann”, who got her lazy eye fixed and is now a high-priced escort in Manchester. As episode one closed, Alma was rejecting the Job Centre’s suggestion of becoming a “sandwich artist” and aiming for the sex trade.

You could shove a few more care workers and therapists into this and add a hand-wringing voice-over, and you’d have a rugged social documentary. Willan’s comedy says it far better, though.

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