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15 August 2023

Henpocalypse! How did this painful dildo-wielding comedy make it to air?

I can’t remember the last time I endured a show as relentlessly laboured as this steaming dollop of faux-feminist puerility. Watching it is torture.

By Rachel Cooke

I’ve only ever been on one full-blown hen weekend, and I ran away before it was over, an existential crisis having swept over me in the middle of the night as I washed my hands with a penis-shaped bar of soap (it was apple-scented, which somehow only made things worse).

So I rather liked the idea of Henpocalypse!, in which five women depart to a cottage in rural Wales for the purposes of pink debauchery, only to find themselves trapped there, possibly forever, by a population-decimating pandemic caused by crabs (NB I mean crabs of the eat-with-mayonnaise-and-chips kind, not the sort that live in your pubic hair). If the average hen weekend is purgatory, the seventh circle of hell is surely one from which there is no prospect of escape.

But Henpocalypse! is itself a gruesome kind of torture, each episode seeming to last at least twice as long as a flight to Lanzarote, where the ghastly Zara (Lucie Shorthouse) would have preferred to celebrate her forthcoming nuptials. Truly, I can’t remember the last time I endured a comedy as relentlessly laboured as this steaming dollop of faux-feminist puerility – alas, I didn’t catch Sex Lives of the Potato Men. It genuinely amazes me that a BBC which has made such heinous cuts to its arts and news output is willing to spend licence payers’ money on this many “jokes” about vibrators and Kegel balls (when the show’s writer, Caroline Moran, finds something funny, she lets you know by repeating it almost immediately, like a toddler who must shout poo at every adult they encounter).

If you imagined, as I did, that Fleabag and Motherland had changed everything for women and TV comedy, I’m afraid disillusionment now awaits you in the form of a Pilates teacher who hides a child’s walkie talkie in her vagina; a male stripper who is forced to use a toy Big Yellow Teapot to piss in; and four adult females who deploy “sharpened” dildos – swinging, flesh-coloured balls still attached, natch – as defensive weapons when they head to the nearest village in search of Fray Bentos pies. Yes, visual gags, with a strong emphasis on the word gag.

[See also: Why I’m no longer going on hen weekends]

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It’s a question of charm, of which Henpocalypse! has not one bit. All comedy requires it. These women, bitchy and vacuous, don’t even like each other; God alone knows why we should enjoy their company. When, over the course of their quarantine, something terrible happens to the leg of simple-minded Jen (Kate O’Flynn), whom they all bully and barely tolerate, the other four simply lock her in the cellar and leave her to rot. (I mean this literally; the stench of her flesh has them holding their noses on the rare occasions they visit for the application of Savlon.)

Zara’s mother Bernadette (Elizabeth Berrington) is a bully straight out of Shameless who’s missing her HRT and wonders whether she might try codeine instead (“a couple of cods up the bum takes the edge off”). Her best holiday ever was spent alone, when she took her Rampant Rabbit to Chester.

Shelly (Callie Cooke) is Zara’s best friend, though not for much longer: her suggestion that Zara’s fiancé is not coming to rescue her, despite the bride-to-be feeling his imminent arrival “in my fanny”, did not go down well (as someone else says, “it’s a long way from Congleton to your fanny”). And then there’s Veena (Lauren O’Rourke), the practical one. It’s Veena who fashions an armoury from hair straighteners and pedicure tools, and it’s Veena who catches owls to be eaten for tea, snaring them with leg wax (the owls sound as though they might be vaguely funny written down, which is odd because, on screen, they definitely aren’t).

Will Jen die? Will Zara’s fiancé show up? Will Drew, the stripper they’ve chained to a radiator in the belief that he is the last man on Earth, manage to escape? Personally, I don’t care if a teeming great cast of crabs walks sideways all the way from Llandudno to their stupid cottage, and kills the lot of them. I can’t agree with Veena, who insists this isn’t the worst hen weekend she has been on. Watching Henpocalypse! is like staring into the abyss. Somewhere up above, assorted Pankhursts, Andrea Dworkin and even Helen Gurley Brown are wondering what the hell it was all for.

BBC Two, 15 August, 10pm; available on catch-up

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This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future