The bravery to be honest

Kate Johnstone watches 'This Way Up' on Channel 4.

What are the odds that after one self-penned comedy drama featuring a single 30-something woman with uncertain career prospects, overshadowed by her supremely successful older sister, struggling with loneliness, sadness and grief, that a second should follow so soon? This Way Up goes some way to fill the Fleabag-shaped hole in our lives. 

It was written by and stars Irish comedian Aisling Bea as Aine, a TEFL teacher trying to get on with her life after a spell in a rehab facility – no spoiler, as the opening scene is Aine leaving the facility with her sister Shona (Sharon Hogan, who executive produced the show). Unlike Fleabag and Claire, Aine and Shona seem to have a close relationship. Perhaps too close. Shona seems more like a substitute mother, to whom Aine turns for any and everything. 

Yet in some ways Aine seems to be doing well. She’s a wonderful teacher, inspiring her class of foreign students into making their voices heard. She’s such a good teacher that she’s recommended for private tuition of a young French boy Etienne, the son of Richard (Tobias Menzies). Richard says Etienne’s mother is dead, and seems to have had little or no relationship with her or the boy previously. The house is soaked in sadness. Aine provides a vital line of communication between boy and man, and finds herself being drawn into their lives. 

What we start to see is how much effort Aine is putting into keeping her life ticking over. She’s desperately lonely, in the way that seems more obscene when you live cheek-by-jowl with others. She goes out of her way for her students, and Etienne, and responds to Richard’s obvious pain (a terrific performance by Menzies). But she won’t let others help her: she lies to Shona about having grand nights out with non-existent friends, so Shona won’t worry about her. It’s shame, and pride, and fear of where admitting her feelings might lead. 

This Way Up has a large and diverse cast, and cracks along at a great pace without seeming rushed. Like Fleabag, it can shift from comedy to seriousness in a blink. In one short scene, a family crowd round the father in celebration of his birthday. He tears up: cut to Aine, Shona and their mother (Sorcha Cusack) on the couch, close to tears themselves for completely different reasons. It’s whip smart on how much we feel we can tell other people, how high the cost of not speaking can be, and the bravery required to be honest with yourself. An enjoyable and thought provoking watch.

- This Way Up is on Channel 4 and can be streamed from All 4.

Kate Johnstone is Associate Editor for Culture.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber