Dreamland review: Lily Allen gives a grounded, understated performance in this brash and bold Margate sitcom

Beneath the slapstick and cotton-candy hues in this new Sky Atlantic show, dark family secrets are lurking

Isobel Lewis
Thursday 06 April 2023 21:30 BST
Dreamland trailer

Dreamland, like the Margate amusement park it’s named after, wears its brashness on its sleeve. Three minutes into the Sky Atlantic comedy, which is based on Sharon Horgan’s award-winning 2017 short, viewers have already been exposed to inflatable penises, a cannibalistic bunny, and, erm, “perineum oil”. But beneath the slapstick and cotton-candy hues, dark family secrets are lurking. There’s also commentary on class and race dynamics in British seaside towns. All of these elements play out to varying levels of success, but you can’t fault Dreamland for trying. Everything it does, it does with gusto.

It’s Trish’s (former Doctor Who companion Freema Agyeman) baby shower and the entire house, from the crystals to the TikTok-inspired chicken drumsticks, is pink. Wide-eyed and manic, Trish is desperate for a baby girl – hence the “manifestival” – and her partner Spence (the ever-excellent Kiell Smith-Bynoe) is happy to go along with it. But then her sister Mel (Lily Allen, in her first major TV role) shows up. Dressed in black, she sticks out like a sore thumb – and that’s before she’s knocked on the door clutching a can of Stella. Trish seethes: “Being a hot mess is very 2019.” “Yeah, well being a b**** is timeless, so lucky for you, eh?” Mel replies.

This might be Allen’s inaugural on-screen performance (in the theatre world, she’s already snagged an Olivier nomination), but the former pop star gives a grounded, understated performance as the black sheep of the family. She more than proves herself as a Serious Actor, and her coolness is an effective contrast to the bright sitcom style of her co-stars. In the pink camp, Agyeman shows off her comedy chops as a frazzled mother-to-be, while the older generations of the family, played by Frances Barber and Sheila Reid, get both the biggest laughs and most heartfelt moments. There’s a palpable sense that the cast all really care about one another: it’s touching.

Margate, meanwhile, is a character in its own right. It’s a town in a state of flux, going from British tourist haven to neglected holiday destination, with a recent surge of interest and subsequent wave of gentrification. You can feel those changes in the show’s fabric. The colours may be hyper-saturated, the cars decked out with leopard print and comedy headlight eyelashes, but the influx of DFLs (down from London) has only widened the societal divide. Estate agent Trish sells clients sweeping modern homes, yet she can only afford to view collapsing houses littered with nos canisters and bearing graffiti that warns: “Bad s*** happened here.”

Class commentary is a key part of Dreamland’s charm, but the topic of racial prejudice is less smoothly integrated. Trish makes valid points about the ways women of colour are dismissed during pregnancy and childbirth, but her comments resemble soundbites, shoehorned in over natural dialogue. There are nuggets of comedy gold in the script (“What do you need confidence for? You’re not Bradley Walsh!”), but they equally feel out of place among the more contrived writing. Still, Dreamland, I expect, would argue it’s better to loudly try to make a point than not go there at all. This show does nothing by halves; come for the pink, stay for the politics.

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