Together, review: the lockdown lovers with a biting message for Boris

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Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy - Peter Mountain
Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy - Peter Mountain

How has lockdown been for your marriage? Have you settled into a contented little routine for two, pottering around the garden and trying new recipe ideas and happily making your way through the entire Netflix catalogue? Or have you reached the stage where the very sight of your spouse makes you want to scream into the abyss?

Did you experience a pang of recognition when Sharon Horgan turned to James McAvoy at the beginning of Together (BBC Two) and said with feeling: “I hate your face?”

To be fair, the characters felt this way before lockdown. They felt this way before they had their son, which was quite some time ago seeing as he looked to be about 10. But then they found themselves trapped in each other’s company (a nice one with an enormous kitchen, obviously – this is a middle-class TV drama) by a global pandemic, and they had no one to
vent at but each other. And us.

In a giant failure of imagination, I had expected Together to be a lot like Catastrophe, Horgan’s frequently hilarious Channel 4 comedy about the ups and downs of a relationship. The BBC blurb called it “a searingly funny and painfully poignant love story”. But the clues were there: this wasn’t your ordinary drama. Directed by Stephen Daldry, backed by theatre producer Sonia Friedman, and a two-hander in which we never learned their names – this was a play for TV, from the dialogue to the staging.

James McAvoy - Peter Mountain
James McAvoy - Peter Mountain

Perhaps it was that remove which meant that I admired Together but didn’t love it. In fact, for the first 20 minutes, I hated it. It was ambitious and accomplished but never lost its staginess. And that BBC description felt wide of the mark: it wasn’t very funny, unless you count McAvoy’s man-bun.

The characters mostly addressed the audience. McAvoy and Horgan were each granted a lengthy monologue to camera. They have different styles: Horgan has a gift for delivering lines as if she’s chatting to a close friend, while McAvoy never lets you forget that he’s an actor. That’s not a criticism of his talents – his starring role in Cyrano de Bergerac pre-lockdown was one of the most thrilling stage performances I’d seen in years – but it put him slightly at odds with Horgan. All to the good, I suppose, as the pair were supposed to be at odds over everything.

Their early exchanges, written by Dennis Kelly, were biting. “Saying goodbye to you, without doubt, is the best part of my day.” “I actually think of him as a cancer… one of the really bad ones, like liver or pancreatic.” It’s the kind of invective that can only come from a couple who once loved each other with a passion. Eventually, having found a way back, McAvoy said they had “reached the love that exists beyond hate”, which was a great line.

Covid was ever-present. It was there in the screen captions, marking the milestones – first day of lockdown to the last – and the mounting death toll. And it was there in the storyline as Horgan’s mother was moved into a care home, a development which we knew to greet with dread. “She’ll be safe there, right?” she said.

Of course, her mother was not safe; she contracted Covid, was moved to hospital, and died alone. In the drama’s most potent scene, Horgan returned home from the intensive care ward where she had been allowed 15 minutes at her mother’s bedside.

Together - Peter Mountain
Together - Peter Mountain

Driving back, she had received a call from the nurse to say that her mother was about to die, but he could not hold her hand as promised because another patient was dying in a neighbouring bed. The nurse laid his phone on the bed: “I sat in a lay-by on the ring road, FaceTiming – I just sat there and watched my mum die,” Horgan said. For anyone who lost a loved one in such a terrible way, this must have been a difficult scene to get through.

As the thing wore on, it seemed more and more that Kelly had set out to deliver a polemic under the cover of a relationship drama. Horgan had a fierce speech in which she explained the concept of “exponential growth” – that phrase parroted again and again in Covid briefings – in one minute and 34 seconds with a clarity that has escaped the Prime Minister. “It’s said that if we’d locked down one week earlier, we could have saved 20,000 lives.” She raged against the scandalous failure to safeguard care homes; hospital patients sent in “like blankets laced with smallpox”, residents “killed by stupidity, killed by dumbf-----y”.

I found myself wondering if Matt Hancock or his minister for social care, Helen Whately, were watching this drama. I have no idea if the marriage bit struck home for them, but I hope the political message did.

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