Paula review: Denise Gough is marvellously miserable in this chilling thriller

Paula is unforgiving, unaffectionate, angry, awkward – and unashamedly so. Good for her

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It’s becoming a pattern, this internal conflict I am battling with. And a troubling one, at that. It’s the one where I can’t tell if I a) am infatuated with an undeniably beautiful man, or b) want to run away from him as fast as my legs can carry me – because he is an extremely dangerous sociopath.

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The man in question is Tom Hughes in the new, truly thrilling thriller on BBC2: Paula.

Pitch-black and with the gloom laid on thick, Paula tells the tale of a young woman (the magnificent Denise Gough) who is having an affair with a married man. She lives in a house a bit like serial killer John Christie’s in Rillington Place. You know the kind: poorly lit, creaking doorways, all-encompassing sense of dread.

Paula is in a rut. Not only is she trying to disentangle herself from an illicit relationship, but she is also struggling with her own dysfunctional family, and – to add insult to injury – she’s got a rat problem in the basement.

So, Paula does the logical thing and hires pest control, and that’s when Tom Hughes strides in to her life and lures us all into his depraved madness in one fell swoop. He plays a handyman named James, and like Hot Bad Guys of the past – Jamie Dornan in The Fall and James Norton in Happy Valley – he is irresistibly, skin-crawlingly evil. But my god, that jawline.

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Anyway, at first we quite like James. Aesthetics aside, we sympathise with him because he’s down on his luck, he can’t afford the rent, and he’s got a charming Crosby lilt.

But as the hour unfolds we begin to see his unsavoury side, and the lengths he’ll go to for cash. James lives with two women, who he apparently sleeps with on alternating nights. He steals from his elderly mother. He has horrifying hallucinations (which is when the series begins to veer off thriller and teeter on horror). And he takes a childhood photo from Paula’s basement. Very strange behaviour indeed.

But none of this is quite enough to brace us for the shocking, disproportionate crime he goes onto commit. This curiosity about James’s past is bound to make viewers watch on.

Meanwhile, Denise Gough as Paula is delightfully depressing. Her on-screen presence is something to behold, and she was equally captivating on stage in People, Places Things – for which she won an Olivier Award last year. Paula is a real misery, smiling a grand total of once in the whole hour when her and James are about to get down to it, and you barely recognise the strange, sad twist of the lips for what it is.

Paula is in total self-destruct mode. Her taste in music is great – Paolo Nutini. Her taste in men is awful – but admittedly relatable. We’ve got the married guy who seems perfectly lovely but is literally married to somebody else (and who is a bit rash for climbing over that gate. I mean, come on). And another who is a compulsive liar… and a killer. Bad life decisions Paula. Very bad.

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She is a refreshingly strong, slightly obnoxious female lead. To write a central character so difficult to like is a brave, effective move from Conor McPherson. This is the Irish playwright’s first original television series, and he is known for the supernatural undertows running through his creations, including his acclaimed plays such as The Weir and The Seafarer. Paula is unforgiving, unaffectionate, angry, awkward – and unashamedly so. Good for her.

What is unsettling, though, is that – bad decisions or not – it was inevitable that Paula’s life would collide with James’s. She had rats, so she called in pest control. One of the scariest aspects of this drama is actually the idea that through no fault of your own, you can invite a sociopathic murderer into your house and before you know it, your life can come tumbling down around you.

“You could be anyone. You could be a psycho for all I know,” Paula jokes in a post-coital haze. What Paula does with James is not so different from meeting someone in a nightclub and having a very loud, incomprehensible “conversation” with them before you’re in an Uber and jumping into bed together.

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With only two more episodes to go, there are a lot of questions we need answering. Will Paula become a murder suspect? Why is James hallucinating? In fact, are they even hallucinations? And is Tom Hughes single? For now, at least, we know that the moral of the story is never to let a sexy pest control man into your home. Rats you can live with, at least.