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Life review: Doctor Foster spin-off is poignant but frustratingly insular

Unhappy couple: Alison Steadman and Peter Davidson as Gail and Henry (BBC/Drama Republic/Gary Moyes)
Unhappy couple: Alison Steadman and Peter Davidson as Gail and Henry (BBC/Drama Republic/Gary Moyes)

Doing a spin-off of something as popular as Doctor Foster was always a risk, but Life pulls it off – for the most part. The new BBC One series is truly a mixed bag: poignant one moment, damningly cliched the next, before upending expectations again with an emotional gut-punch. Once you let go of any Doctor Foster-related preconceptions and submit to its more slow-paced drama – as well as the sad reality that Jodie Comer will not be making an appearance – Life is worth a watch.

The logline is simple: a house in Manchester is divided into four flats with four stories unfolding in parallel. At times, they spill over into one another by way of a chance encounter, mutual friend or just a curt reminder to chip in for the repair work being done in the shared hallway. The house share concept works, but it is well-trodden ground, and other shows have done it better. It doesn’t help that the conceit is lazily introduced in the first episode via a broken buzzer set-up serving as a roll-call for the characters.

Victoria Hamilton is the bridge between Mike Bartlett’s hit 2015 series and Life. The actor reprises her role as Anna (although now she goes by Belle and sports a bleached pixie cut), whose solitary existence and orderly flat are thrown into disarray when her sister is sectioned and her niece (Erin Kellyman) shows up unannounced. Her neighbours are David (Adrian Lester), a married English teacher whose head is turned when on holiday; Hannah (Melissa Johns), a heavily pregnant young woman who, to the dismay of her new partner, is reconnecting with the father of her child; and Gail (Alison Steadman), a 70-year-old woman questioning her marriage and the type of life it has assigned her.

It’s a lot of plot for six episodes. And it doesn’t always feel inventive; David’s guilty holiday kiss ends up being a student in his class the very next day (shocker!), and the boundaries between the series’ good and bad characters don’t feel messy enough to reflect real life.

But what does ground the series is its actors: its ensemble cast deliver nuanced performances that give the show the life it promises. Hamilton’s portrayal as Belle makes her character worthy of the spin-off alone. Belle’s life is awkward, sterile and void of connection. In a viscerally uncomfortable scene, she is on a date with her electrician when she stands up abruptly and leaves, tearfully saying, “I can’t think of anything to talk about.”

The other notable storyline is Gail's, played with astounding tenderness by Alison Steadman. In her shy and reluctantly docile role, the actor has cast off any lingering associations with Gavin and Stacey’s Pam. Gail’s marriage to Henry (Peter Davidson) is agonising to watch: he is patronising, quietly disrespectful and relishes undermining her in public (all in the name of “good fun”, of course). The writing of their relationship is thoughtful and nuanced; by contrast, others at times feel attenuated.

Life is concerned solely with the inhabitants of that Manchester home. There are times when the series feels insular to a fault. Its absence of any outside world can feel annoying, especially when we have grown accustomed to novelistic TV shows that either comment on, or at the very least nod to, social issues. But its downfall also works to its advantage. In a series so focused on character, it is hard not to care about them. By the end of the pilot, Bartlett has made us care about his ensemble cast – no mean feat given that the one-hour episode has to be divvied up between the lot of them.

The spin-off shines largely thanks to its casting. Hamilton, Steadman and the other actors move naturally through the storylines, some of which could quickly feel contrived if it weren't for them. The actors imbue their world with the instinctive gestures and intimacy one would expect from a series called Life.

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