Alma’s Not Normal (BBC Two) is written and performed by actress Sophie Willan. It is based on her award-winning 2017 Edinburgh show, Branded, which was inspired by her chaotic childhood (some of which was spent in care) as the daughter of a heroin addict and her later life experiences as that sex worker. What used to be a stand-up game in search of laughter has now been enlarged with a fine cast, an array of quickly and surely drawn characters and an emotional feeling that – when the time comes – suddenly comes to you. strike in the solar plexus and leave you breathless with grief.
Alma (Willan) is a 30-year-old woman who has just broken up with Anthony, the boyfriend she has had since the age of 15. It’s not to her detriment (we can go along with Alma’s grandmother’s succinct vision of the man – “He’s a whore”) but she doesn’t see him yet. Anthony left her for the youngest, the hottest, soon imbued with Mélanie, and with the rent to pay. A pink fur coat, Alma cycles through the job center to find that “the SubnGo sandwich artist” is the only option available to someone who was a five-year-old child (“Mowgli with a mule”, she suggests) and didn’t go to school until seven. “I have never been a great academic,” said Alma delicately to his interrogator, in front of Mowgli flashbacks spanning unconscious adults to get to cornflakes in a sordid kitchen. They are given an expression of interest form to take home and complete.
Grandmother Joan, whole mouth and Leopard skin pants, alongside a lasting love for fried spam, are played by the mighty Lorraine Ashbourne. Joan welcomed Alma after social services removed the child from her mother, Lin, and placed her in foster care. Their coarsely affectionate bond, formed and maintained in adversity, is one of the highlights of the half hour.
Siobhan Finneran plays the broken mother of Alma (formerly punk, “The Iggy Pop of Psychological Service”), who is still confined to Bury Psychiatric Hospital because of her tendency to burn down houses every time she is under the influence of his drug addiction post-psychosis. Lin started painting, although Alma noted that she had always loved ornamental goblins too. “If she had discovered them before the heroine, we could have had a very different life. Finneran, Ashbourne and Willan form a powerful central trio, able to pivot skillfully and naturally between comedy and tragedy, striking viewers with hilarious or hopeless truth at any time as needed.
They are skillfully supported by their standup colleague (and singer) Jayde Adams as Alma’s best friend, Leanne, who, despite her unglamorous job as a butcher’s assistant, is never short of a handsome in Bury thanks to her exotic accent (she is from Bristol). It is Leanne who learns – by Winky Anne, even if her eyes are fixed now – that there is money to be made in the escort work: “£ 7.50 an hour, I am on the move, ”she notes to Alma on a pint. “And I have to wear this hat.” When she comes home, Alma messes up her expression of interest form and calls Winky Anne’s employer instead. “Yes,” she said firmly before leaving her. “I know it’s sex. “
Alma’s Not Normal has a lot in common with Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life and Aisling Bea’s This Way Up. According to the journalistic law according to which three of anything constitutes an official tendency, I can now pronounce with pleasure the birth of a news – dramas-created by a woman-actress-which capture the imperfections in disorder -of- life-and-in-particular-the-ramifications-on-mental-health-of-the-previous-often-experience-of-childhood-and-are-brilliant-by-mingling-sorrow- and-laughing-and-folding-micropscopic-detail-in-with-macroscopic-coverage-of-this-crazy-thing-we-call-life.
Certain trends pass, of course. But some – especially when established by pioneers producing high-quality work – represent the beginning of a new way of doing or thinking about things. I would like to think that Alma is another sign that programs directed by women are becoming a less frightening proposition for the commissioners and the public. That the weight of the drama that a half-hour comedy can bear (or vice versa) is no longer set in stone but can be left to the creator and his talents to guess. These mainstream stories – about mental health, bad childhoods, prison terms, or a million other things – are starting to be seen as a rich seam to discover, not an elephant trap for assessments. Hoping for more, this is not normal.