Toni Collette drama Wanderlust has a wonderfully refreshing approach to sex and relationships

This flagship BBC autumn drama from playwright Nick Payne gives us an intimate look at intimacy, says Eleanor Bley Griffiths

Toni Collette in Wanderlust

In some ways the concept behind Wanderlust is a hard sell: a drama about the sex life of a middle-aged married couple? And the wife is a psychotherapist called Joy whose whole life has been shaken up by a cycling accident? And the husband is an English teacher called Alan? Could be dull.

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But we have good news! Wanderlust is excellent. Even better, Joy is played by Toni Collette who could give an Oscar-worthy performance just by reading out the back of a shampoo bottle, and Alan is played by The Halcyon’s Steven Mackintosh.

No shampoo bottles are necessary because playwright Nick Payne (Constellations) has delivered a script that is funny and pacy and also very, very truthful. Sometimes painfully so.

What we get is a drama that takes a hard look at marriage, monogamy and the thorny connections between love and lust and sex. While Joy and Alan are having their Bedroom Issues, their two kids are navigating problems of their own: hormone-filled teenager Tom is desperate to get going, and grown-up daughter Naomi is suffering the heartbreak of rejection.

To be clear, Wanderlust certainly doesn’t shy away from the sex. Within the first couple of minutes Alan has methodically stripped and assumed the missionary position without even a hint of foreplay or seduction, while beneath him Joy, who is recovering from a broken pelvis, winces and cracks awkward jokes. The attempt ends in failure and frustration and solo masturbation.

This almost-sex sets the tone for what’s to come because this drama couldn’t be more explicit about being explicit. You can look forward to hand-jobs and plenty of self-pleasure.

“In romantic dramas you sort of don’t really see the sex,” screenwriter Nick Payne explained at a press event in London. “They don’t really dramatise the sex, do you know what I mean? You see people meeting up and getting together and hanging out, and then either they kiss or you cut to the next morning.

Wanderlust

“And I guess I’ve always just wondered, what happens if you make the sex the driver of the story? So you sort of explore all these romantic lives through all the shagging.”

That’s not to say that it’s endless, non-stop, gratuitous shagging.

“I know there is a focus on sex, but I really love that actually that’s the byproduct of something much deeper that Joy’s going through,” Collette said.

“And I think throughout the course of the season she learns about why she’s making these decisions and why she’s having these ideas at this point in her life. I mean, she’s a woman who’s basically had a near death experience, and suddenly her existence is contextualised, and you start to think about what you want to do with your time on this planet.

“And that’s why she’s questioning the structure of her life and her relationship and what she really wants, and I think all of those things – they’re not high concept, but actually they’re the most f***ing important things to all of us.”

Middle-aged men and women rebelling from their stale marriages are, in a small way, having a bit of a TV moment. Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan spent many fraught hours thrashing it out in The Split; Sarah Jessica Parker was a married woman having an affair in Divorce; and Paula Malcomson suddenly left Christopher Eccleston and their kids behind in Come Home. It’s all a bit bleak if you’re keen on monogamy and everlasting love.

Jeremy Swift plays Neil in Wanderlust

So what’s so refreshing and new about Wanderlust?

For one thing, it’s really properly funny. For another, it’s hopeful: Joy and Alan truly love each other and are determined to work through the sexual roadblock in their marriage. And from what we’ve seen so far, there’s very little storming around and crying and yelling which is quite a relief.

Also, not to keep banging on about this (ha ha) but the approach to relationships and sexuality is a massive change of pace from most dramas.

One thing that’s pretty refreshing is the show’s approach to female masturbation, still so much more taboo than it is for men. When teenager Tom (Joe Hurst) walks in on his mum “flicking the bean” (his words) and freaks out about it to his friends at school, the joke is on him – not her. Even his friends think that’s pretty normal behaviour.

Joe Hurst plays Tom Richards in Wanderlust

You can see why a role like this might tempt Collette to our shores for a rainy winter filming a TV drama in Manchester. Nick Payne has reworked his 2010 Royal Court play of the same name into a six-hour series with a wider scope and depth – and Joy is just the kind of complex and real character so many actresses are itching to play.

Reflecting on her reasons for signing up, Collette said: “I think generally film at the moment, there are massive budgeted films, and they seem to kind of be watered down, neutralised, and therefore they have nothing really to say.

“And in TV it’s kind of the opposite, which is very exciting. And I have to say, for me it’s all about the writing. This is pretty much the best writing I’ve ever worked with and one of the best jobs of my entire career. I’m a 45-year-old woman and I’m a pig in s***.”

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Wanderlust will air on BBC1 this autumn


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