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Finding Alice review: Keeley Hawes is brilliant in bittersweet black comedy about death

Jessie Thompson
·3-min read
<p>Keeley Hawes stars in Finding Alice, about a woman grieving the sudden loss of her husband</p> (ITV)

Keeley Hawes stars in Finding Alice, about a woman grieving the sudden loss of her husband

(ITV)

ITV’s big new Sunday night drama, Finding Alice, is about a woman coping with grief after the sudden death of her husband. I know what you’re thinking – what are these nutters playing at? The last thing any of us want to watch right now is a show about death, frankly. But it turns out that this four-part drama, starring the reigning queen of British telly Keeley Hawes as Alice, is just the kind of gentle, diverting drama to take our minds off of things.

“How do I flush the loo?” Alice asks, in what turn out to be her last words to her husband, Harry (Jason Merrells). At the beginning of the night, he’s showing her and their daughter Charlotte (Isabella Pappas) around the new smart home he’s built for them. He’s a developer, and this has long been a dream project of his, now finally complete. By the end of the night, he’s fallen down the stairs to his death and Alice has no idea where the fridge is.

From early on, the show burrows into the blackly comic absurdity that peppers life’s random tragedies. “No bannisters,” people mutter sadly, looking around at the flash Grand Designs-style new house. But then questions begin to mount: did Harry really fall down the stairs by accident? Why isn’t there enough money in the couple’s joint bank account? Why was the office at his building site trashed? And why does everyone know the front door code and keep walking into the house unannounced?

Part-comedy, part-mystery and part-family drama, it’s an original multi-genre mixture, which feels fresher for being hard to categorise. There are twists and turns galore – generous, good old-fashioned gifts for those of us with frayed attention spans. You’ll need to overlook a few eyebrow-raising moments – would the police really benignly accept “oh I don’t think it’s working” as Alice’s excuse for not showing them any CCTV footage? - but that doesn’t matter so much when the writing deftly tackles big, timely themes like death and family so well.

Charlotte (Isabella Pappas) and Alice (Keeley Hawes) are the mother/daughter duo at the show’s heartITV
Charlotte (Isabella Pappas) and Alice (Keeley Hawes) are the mother/daughter duo at the show’s heartITV

This is the second project that Hawes has produced under her company Buddy Club, and the second time she’s teamed up with writer Simon Nye (the pair previously worked together on The Durrells). Along with writer Roger Goldby, they make a great team. Hawes is fantastic as Alice, so baffled by her loss that she is only able to speak to people in the amusingly bluntest of terms. Arriving at hospital and asking to see her husband, she’s politely asked what ward he’s on. “The ward for dead people,” she snaps.

If you think Alice is blunt, wait until you meet her mother, played by Joanna Lumley, clearly having an absolute riot. “Is that what you’re wearing?” is the first thing she says to her now widowed daughter. “Have you thought about the funeral? They get very booked up,” she asks five minutes later. Lumley is among an impressively assembled cast that also includes Nigel Havers, Kenneth Cranham, Gemma Jones and Sharon Rooney, all delivering excellent comic performances. Rhashan Stone in particular is brilliant as a morgue attendant who rouses some sexual tension – and props to his agent for selling that one to him.

At the show’s heart is the bond between Alice and her daughter Charlotte, both reeling from their loss. "You’ll need to fill in some forms, the body is technically clinical waste,” the pair are told as they inquire about burying Harry in the garden, as they jointly tackle the weird admin of death. I suspect that this unusual, warm, watchable show about the connections and comedy we find in life’s most difficult moments will resonate for many right now in the most bittersweet of ways.

Finding Alice starts on ITV on Sunday 17 January at 9pm, after which all episodes will be available on ITV Hub and BritBox