“Where am I?” yawns Mel (Lily Allen), waking up on board a bus after an inelegant, open-mouthed slumber. “You’re in Margate, babe!” shrieks a bride-to-be sporting a nurse’s outfit, a fuchsia champagne flute and a plastic penis. Mel rolls her eyes, setting the tone for Sky’s new comedy, Dreamland.
The series is about four warring working-class sisters who live by the beach in Kent and is the latest from the black comedy machine that is Motherland writer Sharon Horgan (whose last project, the excellent Bad Sisters, was, of course, also all about sisters). The six-parter is based on a short film Horgan wrote for Sky Arts in 2017 and stars Allen as the black sheep of the family, returning home from her fashion job in Paris, crashing her sister Trish’s “mani-festival”, a sort of baby shower, hammered, clutching a Stella Artois and causing chaos within seconds.
“Being a hot mess is very 2019,” Trish (Freema Agyeman) tells her disdainfully. Trish is desperately hoping this, her third child with kind husband Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), will be a girl and the room is a shock of bright pink, like the tourists’ pool flamingos on the shorefront. It’s definitely not Mel’s scene. “Yeah, well being a bitch is timeless,” she shoots back, before they both fall over and have to be Uber-ed to hospital, where Mel learns (mid X-ray) that she too is rather inconveniently pregnant.
“Don’t tell Trish,” she tells Cheryl (Frances Barber), the sensible sister who loves her. “It’s her day.” Here’s to beautifully complicated sibling rivalry: at each other’s throats one second, tenderly protecting each other the next. Then, as Mel looks up at the heavens for a moment of respite, a bird defecates in her eye.
This is Allen’s first TV role. Acting is of course the family business (her brother Alfie Allen is a Game of Thrones star; her father is actor Keith Allen), but Allen was a singer-songwriter until making her West End debut in 2021 in 2.:22: A Ghost Story. She brings a likeable lethargy and messiness to Mel and it’s predominantly through her eyes that we see this so-called Dreamland – the name of a fairground in town but also a sly nod to the artifice and idealism of family relationships.
In an ideal world scenario the sisters of Dreamland are tight, but in reality, there are lots of different resentments bubbling just under the surface. Even sweet, acquiescent Leila (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), always looking for second-hand furniture while working as a rubbish collector, is clearly going to explode with rage at some point.
The script is often smart and funny, with a wealth of talent in the writer’s room including author Emma Jane Unsworth (Horgan is on producing but not writing duty). Snappy exchanges abound: “The French don’t like their kids,” says Mel. “How chic,” someone agrees. But it’s also sometimes almost too curt, the humour slightly forced, crowding out the development of more sympathetic characterisation or narrative cohesion. People don’t always talk like this.
There’s a surreal aesthetic to the show. Margate is a sea of dreamlike pastels and pinks, an improbably bright and bubbly place, where Uber drivers keep chatting even when you’re clearly in serious pain and meet-cutes happen after car crashes. It’s almost like real life, but not quite. Sometimes this feels frothy and fun, like a hen do when you haven’t been to one for ages. But sometimes it also feels naff and absurd — like you’ve been at one for two days and can’t wait to go home.