This Way Up: why Aisling Bea’s show is the perfect tonic for our times
The standup tackles everything from mental health to love and sibling relationships in this deft comedy on recovery
By Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian September 2nd, 2019
It’s a very hard thing to do, to write about mental health issues with humour. There are so many possible missteps, especially during a heightened “cancel” culture. But it is clear the actor and comedian – and now writer and producer – Aisling Bea has nailed it in This Way Up, when, in the very first scene, her character, Aine, on leaving an expensive inpatient mental health facility, makes a comment about the lack of snacks and Jacuzzi.
The first time I was a private inpatient, I campaigned to switch the decaf coffee for proper coffee, and made a point about the tepid, dribbling showers – apparently a safety thing, which I still don’t understand, because who tries to self-harm with water pressure? “Just some feedback …” says Aine’s sister Shona (played by Sharon Horgan) to the receptionist. When an opening scene is as authentic as this, the tone and plot so perfectly, instantly established and recognisable – you know good things are to come.
This Way Up focuses on Aine, an Irish woman living in London, who works as an English-as-a-foreign-language tutor, is very good at her job and clearly cares for her students. She is funny and engaging in the classroom, in contrast to the loneliness she feels in her personal life, as she gets back on her feet after what whispers refer to as a “breakdown”. It’s a show about recovery – hence the title – and everything that entails. Its original title was Happy AF.
This Way Up has been a long time in the making. Bea mentioned it – as well as other projects with Horgan – to me a few years ago. It is written by Bea and executive-produced by the pair (and made by Merman, Horgan’s production company). Back then, Bea referred to Horgan as a sort of older sister. Given that, the onscreen chemistry between the two makes perfect sense.
In Channel 4’s press release, she explains: “Sharon and I first played sisters in a TV show that got cancelled about eight years ago, and we have gone on many drunken nights out since to stay in character.”
In This Way Up, Horgan displays the comic timing for which she is known, but we also get to see more of her straight acting. Shona struggles with the emotional labour of looking after – and constantly worrying about – a loved one who (it is heavily hinted) has attempted suicide, while being in her early 40s and facing the societal pressures of marriage and kids, which she is pretty sure she doesn’t want. Meanwhile, there’s a potential new sexual awakening outside her relationship and the difficulties of a workplace dominated by privately educated men.
The sisterly bond between Aine and Shona is as good a creation as the one we saw in Fleabag. The touches of uproarious laughter (doing Hannibal Lecter impressions when wearing face masks); the frustrations (“Oh, eat my ass, Shona!” “Eat my ass!”); the things kept to oneself. It is a relationship with multiple hues and textures but bound together with a double helix.
As for the subject of mental health, Bea wrote in the Guardian in 2017 about her father, a “charismatic, handsome vet” who took his own life, and has talked about her own experiences of depression. She gets the random turmoil of it: the unwise sexual dalliances; the awkward jokes; the making your way back into the outside world, sometimes feeling that others are speaking an accented language that leaves you adrift. The feeling of being reduced to a child, because episodes of mental ill health can be infantilising.
I almost caught my breath when Aine sinks to the floor of a bathroom, in the way that I have squatted under a shower with not enough energy to stand. But also, the coping mechanisms and shield of humour, sometimes combative, other times self-deprecating. In This Way Up, it is Aine referring to her inpatient stint as a “teeny little nervous breakdown”. In real life, it was a doctor enquiring what it was that had stopped me chucking myself in front of a bus and me replying that, as it drew closer, I saw the “sorry not in service” sign.
This Way Up has a diverse cast: not, as rightwing commentators would have it, because of political correctness, but because it is set in London. Aine’s boss is a black man, her flatmate is a black man; her students are all immigrants (as, of course, are Aine and Shona). The two leads, as well as Charlotte, Shona’s colleague, are, in the parlance of criticism, “strong female characters”. Because that is real life. Charlotte is a brown, gay woman in a world of “rah” bankers.
I haven’t even touched on the nuanced and complex relationship Aine has with her mother, played beautifully (if briefly) by Sorcha Cusack, who nails an emotionally fraught monologue when the two are left alone together. Or the back and forth of falling in love, or falling out of love; the staring at ceilings in the night.
While I was writing this, Bea left me a voicemail explaining she has been overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the show. It has been praised by the likes of Rob Delaney and gained many fans. It is now available in the US on Hulu.
Bea has said that, before the show aired, she decided not to catastrophise about the reaction. “I actively decided for myself, for the first time in my life, to not allow myself to do that, and to maybe believe compliments and lean in,” she told the Irish Times.
I didn’t see much of Bea’s work on panel shows, but her regular stints gained her a legion of fans. Now, with This Way Up, she joins a crop of new television auteurs variously producing and writing, as well as acting in their creations: Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s Broad City; Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag; Charlie Covell’s The End of the F****ing World; Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll; and Mae Martin’s forthcoming Mae and George (working title).
As Bea herself has put it (and worn on a T-shirt): “Female is not a genre.” None of these shows are the same or themed around gender; it is just that, finally, women are getting a fair crack. As many of the above have noted, the only way they felt they could play the roles they wanted was to write them themselves.
To be clear: This Way Up also had me doubled up with laughter, not just nodding along with the darker moments. I would also shout out the fact that, as with many of the most recent successful shows, it is concise: just six 24-minute episodes..
It seems clear that a second series of This Way Up will follow, given the cliffhangers for Aine the other characters. And it seems … things are looking up? This way forward, then.
You can get in touch with Aisling via the following agents...