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24 October 2022

Daisy May Cooper’s Am I Being Unreasonable? is dark, strange comedy

Cooper’s follow-up to This Country is part Julia Davis, part Motherland – with the odd flash of genius.

By Rachel Cooke

In the opening seconds of Daisy May Cooper’s strange new comedy-drama, written and co-starring her friend Selin Hizli, something terrible happens. A man dies in horrible circumstances – a train door, a snagged coat, a catastrophic failure to pull the emergency cord fast enough – and from here the plot spools queasily out. Later, this scene will be replayed in vivid flashbacks, blasts of horror that would make perfect sense in most circumstances. In the context of the script’s unlimited store of fart jokes, however, they’re a bit weird, tonally. One minute, Am I Being Unreasonable? is pure Julia Davis, as black as the grave. The next, last night’s bender is playing havoc with someone’s bowels, and we enter the kind of slapstick I last enjoyed when I was about 12. 

Still, I can’t help but feel warmly towards Am I Being Unreasonable?. I loved Cooper’s previous show This Country to distraction; it will be a while before my good will for her runs out. I’m also, broadly speaking, all in favour of admirable failures, and I think this may turn out to be one of those. Story, as the great Australian writer, Helen Garner, put it in a recent interview, “is a chunk of life with a bend in it”, and this is exactly what Cooper and Hizli have attempted to dish up: the everyday, with a twist (or a kink, if you prefer). I relish their feeling for quotidian and workaday absurdities. Lots of people will, I know, smile at the moment when Nic, the character played by Cooper, flees her house following the arrival of her (hopelessly bad) cleaner. Whether they’ll admit ever to having done the same themselves, of course, is a different matter. 

Cooper and Hizli’s series is named for a phrase popular with Mumsnet posters – “am I being unreasonable?” such women ask, before embarking on a full and frank account of their partner’s gross habits – and, to a degree, it’s on similar territory to Motherland. In the Gloucestershire village where she lives, Nic, who is the mother of a disabled son called Ollie (brilliantly played by Lenny Rush), has no friends. The other women are all ghastly: nosy, competitive, pious. But then Jen (Hizli) – another, more like-minded mother – arrives. They bond over 85 gallons of prosecco, and her world is changed. Except that, for Nic, boozing is dangerous. In possession of a secret grief she cannot share with a single soul, when her tongue is loosened by alcohol, she is in danger – and perhaps, too, Jen is not really the ally she seems. Unless I imagined it, Nic’s husband, Dan (Dustin Demri-Burns), said “nice to see you again” when she introduced Jen to him. 

What must it be like to have to act as normal when your heart is broken in two? This is a compelling basis for a plot. But there are also, it has to be said, plenty of longueurs here: moments when Am I Being Unreasonable? feels a touch Emmerdale. Some scenes, overly stretched, are not as funny as they should be, and Nic and Jen’s sodden evening is moderately tedious to watch (assuming the viewer is sober, which I was). In this sense, it could not be more different to its close cousin, This Country. I wonder if we will come to care about Nic and Jen as we did about Kerry and Kurtan? Somehow, I doubt that we will. Your heart doesn’t break for Nic. There’s a knowingness – something a bit cynical – that works against this. 

I have the sense that Cooper is struggling a little to find her feet after the acclaim she won for This Country. But then, why wouldn’t she be? It’s so hard to replicate success and to continue to be creative and original, particularly in a culture that insists on speed, on production, on content. If Am I Being Unreasonable?, screened by BBC1 in a prime Friday night slot, isn’t a big hit, I hope that she, and those who back her, won’t be discouraged. Talent is a strange thing. Sometimes, it lies low for a while. Sometimes it slinks off like a cat, and must be tempted back. There are flashes of Cooper’s genius here, but perhaps a tyro writer like Hizli was not, on this occasion, the best-placed person to help her turn them into full-blown fireworks. 

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