Could Aisling Bea and Sharon Horgan’s new Channel 4 comedy be the next Fleabag?

Stand-up comedian Bea and Catastrophe's Horgan play sisters in This Way Up – a new comedy-drama about a woman recovering from a "teeny little nervous breakdown"

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Andrew Scott’s sinfully handsome priest may have stolen the show in Fleabag season two, but there was never any doubt that the series’ true love story was between Fleabag and her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford). When the latter declared that Fleabag was the only person she would run through an airport for, women across the country reached for their phones to text their sisters. 

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Sisterhood is an elusive and complex relationship to convey onscreen. Sisters are women who know each other’s every foible and strength; who share with one another so many grievances, and so many jokes. 

I had thought nothing could rival Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s mastery of onscreen sisterhood — until I saw This Way Up, starring Aisling Bea and Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan

Written by stand-up comedian and actress Bea and produced by Horgan’s production company Merman, the Channel 4 series follows Aine (played by Bea), an exuberant foreign language school worker who’s recovering from a “teeny little nervous breakdown”.

At her side is her protective sister, Shona (Horgan). The first scene shows her picking Aine up from a rehab facility – before they both complain to staff about how the brochure misled them with promises of a jacuzzi.  

Bea is more than happy with comparisons between her show and Fleabag: “To be put in the same pile… Phoebe’s a friend of mine, but I’m also in awe of her talent. If anyone wants to draw comparisons, let them,” she tells RadioTimes.com

She admits that Fleabag proved “an inspiration… in terms of performances,” and that she was inspired by Waller-Bridge and Clifford and the “tiny little things that they both do and expressions as actors”. 

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 02/04/2019 - Programme Name: Fleabag - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 6) - Picture Shows: Fleabag (PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE), Claire (SIAN CLIFFORD), Godmother/Stepmother (OLIVIA COLMAN) - (C) Two Brothers - Photographer: Kevin Baker
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford and Olivia Colman in Fleabag

However, she also stresses that her show, and her character’s relationship with her sister, is very different from Waller-Bridge’s. 

Aine and Shona are “very much a pair of pals, and with the Fleabag sisters, they are not necessarily friends and they operate on love but not liking each other,” she says. 

My relationship with Sharon and indeed my sister is unbelievably close, and so is Sharon’s with her sister, to a point where you realise not all families have that.” 

Like Horgan, Bea is Irish, and full of praise for Channel 4’s Northern Irish comedy Derry Girls, which, like This Way Up, she says taps into the dark Irish sense of humour.  

“I just think there’s a thread of being able to deal with dark subjects… They’re two completely different shows, my show and Derry Girls, tonally. I just think that Irish people have a natural sentiment for darkness,” she tells RadioTimes.com.

She draws a link to Love Island’s Irish contestant Maura Higgins, whose sexual jokes have been a talking point among English audiences throughout the most recent series. 

“What you might describe as dark we don’t describe as dark… Maura on Love Island, she’s like, ‘I don’t think I’m cringe and I don’t think I’m over-sexual’, and I don’t think she’s either … In Ireland, that would just be a good laugh, it would not be over-sexualised. That’s kind of how a lot of people speak to each other. 

“When someone goes, ‘the tone of darkness’, you’re like, is it dark? I didn’t know.”

In addition to that “dark” brand of comedy, the series explores mental health – specifically that of men. In episode two, Aine meets Richard (The Crown’s Tobias Menzies), who was estranged from his young French son until the boy’s mother died. Both struggle with unspoken grief, and Aine, the boy’s teacher, serves as “a sort of bridge for the language between them”.

Bea’s father died by suicide when she was three, and she’s written before about how “men in Ireland don’t talk about their feelings, so instead die of sadness”. Was the relationship between Richard and his son informed by her personal history? 

You know what, absolutely and utterly yes it was,” she says, adding: “you look for something you want to talk about and find a vehicle and an interesting way to do it.

“I wanted to explore that silence and the silence of the two of them living in the house together and how deafening that can be.”

Writing the show made Bea reflect on her father’s early death, and how he didn’t have the language to articulate “what was going on inside of him”. 

“I often think to myself… I’m about a year away from the age my dad was when he died, I know that I probably have access to thousands more words to say how I feel than he does, or he did. And he didn’t have the English or the words or society didn’t have the safe places to provide him with the words there to investigate a slow but sure process to work out what was going on inside of him,” she says. “And I’m very aware of that, and I suppose some part of me writing this show is maybe trying to, not rewrite history necessarily, but try to do something with the power I have — it isn’t money or anything like that, it’s creativity. And a platform.

“The show is about a decision to live, and then the after bit of that, that’s when the real hard work begins.”

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Aisling Bea in This Way Up

Bea’s star is only set to rise over the next couple of years; after performing a stand-up special for Netflix in 2018, she’s completed filming on two scripted projects with the streaming service. One is a feature film, Love Wedding Repeat, in which Bea says she plays “a silly clowny idiot” alongside Sam Claflin and Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson.

In Living with Yourself, a comedy-drama series about a man who clones himself, she plays the wife of Paul Rudd (Ant-Man, Avengers: Endgame). She “loved” messing around with the Marvel star on set – “we absolutely both are whores for laughs” – and seems giddy when asked about Netflix’s steps to nurture her career. “I still kind of can’t believe it,” she admits.  

Judging from her star-making turn in This Way Up, we absolutely can. 

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This Way Up airs on Thursdays at 10pm on Channel 4, starting on 8th August