I knew it would be hard not to love a series co-produced by Sharon Horgan and Aisling Bea. Not only do they co-produce, but they also co-star as sisters Shonagh and Áine, whose often fraught relationship always brings drama and hilarity in equal measure. This Way Up came out in August 2019 and seems to have gone slightly under the radar. It explicitly tackles the issue of mental health in young adults, believable and authentic throughout, its focus as much on interpersonal relationships and character development as comedy. The show begins at a rehab facility, where Áine has been staying after suffering a nervous breakdown. Her sister Shonagh comes to collect her, and the sisters’ comical conversation with the receptionist as they leave sets the tone for the irreverent comedy that goes on to permeate all six episodes. We can quickly see the way that mental health will be tackled throughout; often tacit and approached with dark humour.
The fragility of Bea’s protagonist is clear from the offset, but it is her charisma and quick wit that dominate the screen. Her repartee with every character is unfailingly amusing, whether that’s with Richard, the father of the boy she tutors or with Vish, her sister’s affable partner. Working as an EFL teacher for immigrants in London, her enthusiastic and deeply sarcastic teaching style is a joy to watch. As the show progresses, her dark sense of humour and apparent inability to take anything seriously is clearly shown to be a coping mechanism for her struggles with mental health, a familiar feeling for so many. Despite her jovial facade, she is still grappling with the torments of her condition and it is the contrast between her jokey exterior and her vulnerability in private that makes scenes like her panic attack in her flat so gut-wrenching.
It is the ease with which we can sympathise and identify with Áine and her struggles that is one of This Way Up’s most resounding successes. Her deep-seated shame about her depression, evident whenever it is brought up or when Shonagh mentions it to her friends, is so recognisable and demonstrates how much still remains to be done for mental health awareness and understanding in society. The series illustrates the way in which such struggles are often brushed over;, its greatest power coming from its ability to seamlessly transition from deep, moving moments to comedy. Often in shows of this ilk, the inability to present anything seriously can cheapen the moments intended to be more profound, but in This Way Up it switches rapidly from poignant, difficult dialogue to quips and frivolity rather than them always being interspersed, not least during Áine’s interactions with her mother. This allows Bea to emotionally engage the spectator, before bringing them back down to earth with a wisecrack.
Bea and Horgan are at the heart of all that is good about the show, the former’s script a testament to her comedic genius. Bea has been very open in the past about mental health, discussing her father’s suicide when she was three and her own struggles with depression. Her knowledge and personal experience comes through in her depiction of Áine whose behaviour is so often symptomatic of depression. Horgan is as likeable and charismatic as she is in Catastrophe, her blunt dead-pan delivery as disarming and endearing, though she has a more serious role to play. Shonagh has to juggle the pressures of a high-octane city job with a partner looking to settle down and a sister for whom she feels constantly responsible, and pertinent insight is offered into the difficulty women have in a still-hyper masculine business environment. The chemistry between the two leads is the backbone of the series, the protagonists’ sisterly bond embodied by their rapport and Shonagh’s caring and worrying for Áine.
The route to greater awareness and tolerance is always linked to representation. Bea’s raw portrayal of mental health, the way we cope with it and the way those around us respond to it, is a necessary piece that brings rarely tackled issues to our attention. We are left with the uplifting message that support for those close to you can make a real impact on recovery. With the right help, there can always be a ‘way up’.