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Alma’s Not Normal review – TV comedy at its rudest and most fabulous

·4-min read

Earlier this year, the pilot for Alma’s Not Normal (BBC Two) won a Bafta for its creator, writer and star Sophie Willan, who promptly went viral for running around a farmyard in her fancy gown, screaming in rapturous celebration. If there is any justice, the series proper will give Willan, who based some parts of this on her own life, plenty of opportunities for a repeat performance. It is a breath of fresh air, a resolutely British, properly northern, grownup comedy that manages to turn its bleak-on-paper subject matter into a rude, witty and audacious show.

At first, it is the rudeness that stands out most. It is as loud and brash as Alma’s collection of neon-pink furry coats. The whole thing is on BBC iPlayer if, like me, you are unable to resist gobbling it up in one go, but in the latest episode in the TV run Alma weighs up the pros and cons of a job as a “sandwich artist” in an unbearable shop, or the more lucrative option of sex work. “Becoming a prostitute is the world’s worst rebound,” says her best mate, Leanne, as she waves a phallic object in her face, scoldingly.

But Alma is a dreamer – and this does a beautiful job of balancing her fantastical notions of what life could be with the realities. Leanne is judgmental about Alma’s new career prospects and, throughout the series, it causes friction between them that feels frank and honest. (“Why do people always psychoanalyse sex workers and ask how empowered they are?” counters Alma, later, after Leanne has called the job “seedy and gross”.)

If this makes it sound weighty, that is because it is – but also it isn’t, because it is very silly, too. Willan is deft enough to take emotionally taxing storylines and mine them for big laughs without making light of them. It is consistently impressive. Alma’s mother, Lin, is an addict who was unable to look after her daughter, meaning Alma grew up between her outrageous animal-print-loving grandma, Joan, and the care system. She calls herself “the baby in Trainspotting, if she’d lived”.

Although it is practically allergic to sentimentality, the series digs deeper as it goes on. Alma is offered an opportunity that relies on her being care-experienced – and confronting her childhood sends her into a spiral. Her relationship with her deadweight ex-boyfriend is casual until it isn’t; eventually, we see behind the curtain of his cruelty. Sex work has its ups and predictable downs. Her relationship with Lin, and with the system Lin is stuck in for life, is a labyrinthine mess of bad and worse options – she has “had more social workers than crack pipes”, says Alma. Nothing is sugar-coated and no opportunity for a punchline missed.

Related: ‘I went to school drunk in a bikini’: how Sophie Willan turned her chaotic life into sitcom gold

Perhaps calling them punchlines isn’t quite right. One of Alma’s ambitions is to become the new Julie Walters (or Bolton’s Marilyn Monroe) and there is a keen observational streak à la Victoria Wood that makes the writing sing. She describes an experience with a client who has particularly pungent breath as “like having sex with a pub that’s been on a long walk”. The corporate horrors of the sandwich chain, complete with a baby-voiced boss and a childlike ratings system for good and bad behaviour, will ring true for anyone who has endured the horrors of a minimum-wage motivational talk from an over-eager manager.

These are punchy jokes; I would love to know what those who fret about snowflakes ruining comedy, such as the UK’s new culture secretary, would make of it. This seems robust and forthright to me – comedy appears to be in safe hands.

The cast is, as Alma might say, fabulous. Siobhan Finneran is magnificent as the fragile, damaged Lin; a skilled combination of writing and performance makes Lin sympathetic and frustrating, as well as ridiculous and funny. Lorraine Ashbourne is her equal as the sexually emancipated “90s feminist” Joan, whose success on Tinder is a wonder to behold. The presenter and comedian Jayde Adams is a revelation as Leanne, whose exotic Bristolian accent and sexual confidence make her the catch of Bolton. It is a wonderful ensemble.

There is a touch of The Royle Family here, in the brief appearances of Alma’s ex-boyfriend’s mother and in the bickering with nosy neighbour Sandra, who gets short shrift from Joan. But, in truth, Willan has arrived with a distinctive and invigorating voice of her own. “I always thought: if I can’t be normal, I’ll at least be fabulous,” says Alma. She has nothing to worry about on that front.

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