Watching the first new episode of Inside No 9 is very much like wandering through a hall of mirrors – there are plays within plays, familiar jokes turned inside out, formats pummelled together like mashed turnip. You’re never sure where you are or what you’re looking at, the cleverness and inventiveness of the writers wilfully shading into self-confessed self-indulgence. “Wuthering Heist” is what happens when creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton decide, just for the hell of it, to cross the conventions and masked characters of 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte with those of traditional heist movies, and then invite you to make sense of it. Which you can’t.
Commedia dell’arte and heist movies do in fact share a couple of handy qualities for this ambitious hybridisation: masks and two-dimensional characters. The rest is a sort of orgy of cultural references, including Queen, Shakespeare, Fleabag, the sad case of Croydon sweet shop robber Derek Bentley, Peter Kay, terrible Carry On/Donald McGill double-entendres and, of course, the Mexican stand-off in Reservoir Dogs.
So, in true heist movie fashion, the gang get together in a warehouse (number nine) to plan “the job”: the theft of £12m in diamonds. We meet the grotesquely masked “types”: the apparently slow-witted Arlo (Kevin Bishop), the vicious boss man Pantalone (Paterson Joseph on excellent badass form) and his beautiful daughter Hortensia (Rosa Robson). Pemberton, meanwhile, is the plump, pompous and verbose “Doc” and Dino Kelly his “thick as s*** but fit as f***” son Mario. Finally, Shearsmith plays the beaked Italianate military dandy Scaramouche and Gemma Whelan stars as the plain “maid” Columbina, who makes the tea.
At first, we assume we’re watching a rehearsal of the planned robbery, then we think we’re in a rehearsal of a play about a planned robbery. We are surprised again when it turns back into a sort of reality, with Arlo returning from the job with most of a foot blown away, and Columbina, who turns out to be a police spy, having her throat slashed by Pantalone. Everyone except Pantalone and Arlo get shot in the Mexican stand-off, after which Arlo ends up with the jewels, by mistake, and is helped off the scene by an unexplained (uninjured) double. All the way through, Columbina breaks the fourth wall and invites the audience to enjoy “the twist”, a self-reference to Inside No 9 itself, and there’s a running joke about not being able to say “Scaramouche, Scaramouche can you do the fandango” where the last word in bleeped out, because “we can’t afford the copyright”, which is amusing but, again, leaves the viewer bewildered about what’s going on.
Bewilderment is surely the intended effect. It is a sort of dramatic amuse-bouche, created by the chefs for themselves, who are happy for the audience to take or leave as they wish. Indeed, so “meta” is the episode that it is near impossible to critique: Pemberton and Shearsmith manage to get their verdict in first, via Columbina, who informs us directly that the whole exercise “sounds like the sort of thing a drama teacher would have a wank to”, and apologises for “a certain artistic exhaustion”, given that this is the sixth demanding series. To be honest, I’m a bit exhausted by it all too, but I still enjoy the pieces, and I suspect they do too.