By: Michael Hogan
Pencil in that BAFTA nomination now because Suranne Jones delivered a gut-punchingly powerful performance in Channel 4’s I Am Victoria. And given the current cultural discussion about mental health – from Simone Biles to Fearne Cotton, from Kit Harington to Prince Harry – her raw portrayal of spiralling anxiety could hardly have been more timely.
This anthology of female-led, single-location dramas, all written and directed by Dominic Savage, have proved meaty and prestigious enough to attract a heavy duty cast. Last year’s three instalments showcased the considerable talents of Vicky McClure, Gemma Chan and Samantha Morton (who was duly BAFTA-nominated for I Am Kirsty). This new run of three features no less than Lesley Manville and Letitia Wright.
First up, though, was the superlative Jones. Over the past decade, the Coronation Street alumna has become one of our most reliably terrific TV actresses, clocking up a string of hits including Scott & Bailey, Gentleman Jack, Save Me and Doctor Foster.
As working mother Victoria, she appeared to have a box-tickingly idyllic life: attentive husband Christian (an impressively understated turn from Ashley Walters), two cute daughters, a thriving property development business and one of those architecturally designed, high-spec houses which seem compulsory in TV drama nowadays. Hose tap, kitchen island, dazzling white decor and bi-fold doors? Check, check, check, check.
We first met her polishing cutlery before a meal – soon realising that this was a Saturday but she was still chivvying her reluctant husband and sleepy kids out of bed for a “family breakfast”. Everything had to be on Victoria’s timetable and to her exacting specifications – from her children’s chic outfits to the cushions she kept rearranging and the chrome kettle she repeatedly polished.
“I just want this to be perfect,” was Victoria’s mantra, alongside the increasingly unconvincing: “I’m really happy.” Beneath the Instagrammable veneer, though, she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She shrugged off offers of professional help and extracted herself from concerned conversations. She wouldn’t even give Chris a quick kiss until she’d “replied to a million emails”.
The bathroom was Victoria’s sole sanctuary, where she repeatedly stripped off and re-dressed, retouching make-up that didn’t need it, while practising her Stepford Wife-ish fake smiles and talking to herself in the mirror. She even laid on the tiled bathroom floor at night when she was too tightly wound to sleep.
We got a hint as to what lie beneath Victoria’s brittle angst when her needy sister Deborah (Alice Feetham) came around to borrow money. Victoria hadn’t visited their ailing mother in months, it seemed. She insisted that she wanted “my girls to have everything I didn’t have” and refused to disturb “the equilibrium that I work so f***ing hard for”. After a blazing row, she opened the fridge and bit down on a carton of soya milk, like a silent scream. But a lactose-intolerant one.
Her unravelling culminated in an excruciating meltdown at an obsessively organised dinner party – a sequence which provided a stark counterpoint to Jones’ vengeful outburst over wine and pasta at the climax of Doctor Foster’s debut series.
Here her highly-strung skittishness saw Victoria drop a plate of smoked salmon blinis, tearfully snap at her guests to “Stop looking at me!”, then coldly ask them to leave.
Savage creates these semi-improvised playlets in collaboration with each lead actress, exploring themes of personal significance to them. Jones has been open about her own struggles with depression and anxiety, which lent her vulnerable performance extra poignancy. This was a heartbreaking portrait of a woman in crisis, driven by her mesmerising and multi-layered performance.
Intimate hand-held camerawork captured every fleeting expression on her face, every flicker of her frightened eyes. Her breathing was high in the sound mix, be it during her gruntingly punishing workouts or her desperate attempts to calm down, which added to the intense, immersive feel.
Victoria’s volatile anguish made for uncomfortable viewing at times but Jones’ magnetism defied the audience to look away. This was also a claustrophobic domestic drama which might well have resonated with viewers emerging from 18 interminable months of lockdown.
Thankfully, it ended on a note of hope. After seeming to flirt with the idea of ending her life – standing at a level crossing as a train sped past, Victoria glimpsed a sign on the gate which said “Talk to us” – she returned home to hug her family.
We later saw her embark upon psychotherapy over Zoom. An optimistic sign, even if her crisp white shirt, spotless desk and forced friendliness indicated there was still work to do. Let’s hope Victoria gets better. However, Jones is already at the top of her game.
The “I Am” anthology continues next week, with Letitia Wright’s I Am Danielle on Thursday 12th August at 9pm on Channel 4. While you’re waiting, take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or check out our TV Guide.