Poppy Shakespeare

Directed by Benjamin Ross

Written by Sarah William, from the novel by Clare Allan

Starring Naomie Harris, Anna Maxwell Martin and Michelle Dockery

“What the cast were actually suffering from, apart from award-winning overacting and loving themselves, was unclear. What the story was about and what we were supposed to glean from it was shrouded in the repetitive, glib, agitprop writing.”

When AA Gill, the noxiously opinionated television critic for the Sunday Times, gives a programme one of his all-too predictably condescending and negative reviews it is usually a sign that whatever he is criticising is probably worth watching. So it was with this one-off 90-minute drama offering from Channel 4.

Naomie Harris plays the title character, an out-of-work single-mother who finds herself sentenced to one month attending a psychiatric day centre - soon extended to eighteen months. She vehemently protests that she is “normal”, but is served with the threat of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act if she does not comply. ‘N’ (the always excellent Anna Maxwell Martin), a regular at the centre and a psychiatric patient for most of her life, is given the job of showing Poppy around and helping her to acclimatise. These two characters increasingly form a genuine friendship, but their lives are turned upside down in the process.

Based on the award-winning novel by Clare Allan, who has first-hand experience to draw from, ‘Poppy Shakespeare’ is a damning indictment of our mental health care policy and the Government’s obsession with targets and providing a public health service based on private business sector ideology. It plays as a kind of variation of Franz Kafka’s famous novel ‘The Trial’, posthumously published in 1925. Poppy is the victim of faceless bureaucracy and is pulled into a surreal dystopian world from which she cannot escape.

The story is given plenty of room to breathe and time to open out and develop at a leisurely but not stifling pace. As events become increasingly surreal, leaving us to ponder if this is the real world or simply a reflection of the delusional mindsets of the patients, so the story also takes an increasingly dark and troubling turn. The acting is universally excellent. Anna Maxwell Martin and especially Naomie Harris are outstanding.

The story is an incisive commentary on the woeful failings of New Labour to provide stability and an acceptable level of care within the public health sector, and I heartily give it my recommendation.

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