While Netflix's previous Harlan Coben adaptations have felt distinctly like mediocre airport fiction, I naively hoped that this latest effort might be a cut above the rest. For starters, the cast is led by the very talented Cush Jumbo, whose recent track record is positively glowing thanks to stellar work in The Good Fight, Deadwater Fell and The Beast Must Die. Sadly, that impressive run hits a bump in the road with Stay Close.
The very premise of this eight-hour snooze-fest barely holds water, concerning suburban mother and bride-to be Megan (Jumbo), who starts receiving ominous reminders of a past life she once fled from. The problem is that Coben's novel is set in the United States, a vast country where someone could conceivably reinvent themselves 50 times over, but here that setting is swapped out for the considerably smaller United Kingdom.
That's not to say that an individual couldn't lead a double-life on our shores, but Megan's great escape in Stay Close seems remarkably unambitious. By the show's depiction, it equates to little more than a 30-minute drive down the road, making it quite remarkable that it took a full 16 years for anyone to track her down. It feels like she should be bumping trolleys with old acquaintances every other weekend at the big Tesco.
Still, this is par for the course in a miniseries that seems to revel in its own implausibility, with the principal villains being a murderous musical theatre double act by the name of Ken (Hyoie O'Grady) and Barbie (Poppy Gilbert). You might think you've slipped into a fever dream the moment they start singing and dancing their way into the story, being that they are so jarringly out of place with everything else that's going on.
These campy characters make it difficult to treat Stay Close like the high stakes thriller that the creative team clearly set out to produce. That's hardly the fault of O'Grady and Gilbert, who presumably carried out what was asked of them to the letter, but alas, their inclusion in a drama with quite serious themes is just unexplainably bizarre. Ken and Barbie are too annoying to be truly scary and too cruel to be considered comic relief.
James Nesbitt has greater success getting a chuckle out of viewers through the spiky demeanour of his perpetually fed up Detective Inspector Broome. There's something oddly mesmerising about this unusual performance, perhaps stemming from the feeling that this character is never more than a mild inconvenience away from having a complete meltdown. In that sense, he might be the most relatable figure in the piece.
Richard Armitage also co-stars, returning for a second helping of Harlan following his popular lead role in The Stranger last year. His performance switches gears for round two, with despondent photographer Ray Levine being a far cry from polished family man Adam Price. Still, it's not a particularly compelling turn, largely down to a character arc that feels unlikely at best and pathetic at worst.
As expected, Jumbo is the strongest among the Stay Close cast, doing her best with the ropey material and having decent chemistry with on-screen family members Daniel Francis and Bethany Antonia. But her finest scenes are with Eddie Izzard, who plays troubled old friend Harry Sutton and exudes the same effortless charisma she has always had. Unfortunately, even the most well-acted roles are difficult to care much for, which prevents the central mystery from ever gripping your attention.
The characters feel more like plot devices than people who could really exist, with Stay Close seeing them go through the motions to gradually reveal the secret behind a paint-by-numbers mystery story. The whole thing ends with an obligatory twist, which to be fair I didn't see coming, but it's hardly worth the eight hours of tedium it takes to get there.
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If you're planning on having a quiet one this New Year's Eve, please don't consider Stay Close for your big night's entertainment. There are far better options to choose from, such as squinting at a firework display happening a mile down the road (which by this show's logic, is probably being hosted by an old neighbour on the run).