‘Playhouse Presents… The Minor Character’ review

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Launching this week on Sky Arts 1 is a new series of one-off drama and comedy plays (there’s even some science-fiction in there too), under the umbrella of Playhouse Presents…

This is a bold move from the relatively small channel and a most welcome addition to the schedules.

Coming up over the eleven episodes are such names as Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Russell Tovey, Sheila Hancock, Trevor Eve, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Emma Thompson and Zoe Wanamaker. The talent involved is palpable.

First up is The Minor Character, led by former Doctor Who star David Tennant and written by author, Shooting Stars panelist and amusing miserablist Will Self. Adapted from a short story in his The Undivided Self collection, this is the first time his work has been produced for television (Self has published twenty books or so).

Described as a “satire on middle-class, middle-aged urbanites”, the story revolves around endless dinner parties and the alienation felt by Tennant’s character Will.

Will Self writes a character called Will, you ask? Yup, it’s pretty transparent (and the author does not hide from this).

The alienation, however, is felt by the audience; we’re distanced from those drinking, eating and, sometimes, laughing. There’s no connection with the cold, sterile environments and those who inhabit these parties. Normally immensely likeable, Tennant comes off as a rather heartless and uncaring teenager/bored 40-something (channeling Hamlet again) – quite a challenge for the viewer.

It’s odd, but admirable, that the Noughties Time Lord was chosen for such an unsympathetic role, though the affable actor handles it with his considerable skill. Filling up the cast with equal emotional unresponsiveness (and we appreciate this was the goal) are fellow Scot Mark Bonnar (who popped up in last year’s Doctor Who story The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People) and Lucy Cohu (Captain Jack’s daughter in Torchwood: Children of Earth).

The denouement and the question of just who the “minor” character is will not be a surprise for those paying attention. It’s almost Brechtian in its paring down of emotions (despite the many pulsing through the half hour) but one can’t help but feel that it’s just a tad obvious.

Airs at 9pm on Thursday 12th April 2012 on Sky Arts 1.