TV Review: Martina Cole's THE RUNAWAY

Tomorrow, Sky 1 brings Martina Cole's gritty crime novel The Runaway to the screen, with the first in a six-part drama, which will star a liberal smattering of British talent including Alan Cumming, Joanna Vanderham and volatile relative new-comer Jack O' Connell. And lucky devil that I am, I've got my hands on the first two episodes for an early review. If you haven't yet come across any of the pre-release marketing, the official Sky synopsis goes like this:
East London kids Cathy Connor (Vanderham) and Eamonn Docherty (O'Connell) dream of a brighter future. But their hopes are shattered when Cathy is sent into care and then compelled to run away and forced to survive on the streets of Soho. Befriended by colourful transvestite Desrae (Cumming), Cathy grows up in the heart of London's underworld, while Eamonn is drawn into a life of crime and ultimately flees to New York. As London's red light district sinks into the sleaze of the 70s, and the IRA, police corruption and industrial strikes dominate the nation's mood, Cathy and Eamonn are drawn back together, only to discover that their past is not far behind. Burn Gorman (Torchwood), Kierston Wareing (The Take), Max Irons (Dorian Gray) and Mark Womack (Liverpool 1) also star in this unmissable six-part drama.
Follow the jump for my full review. First off, I have to admit I had my reservations about The Runaway's placement as a flag-ship property on Sky 1- alongside other top tier shows like House, Fringe and NCIS: Los Angeles, the Martina Cole adaptation looks somewhat oddly placed. That concern was exaggerated further when I picked up the book, which is particularly colourful, in terms of language and subject matter. But then The Take, the last Sky 1/Martina Cole team-up, which featured yet another brilliant performance by Tom Hardy in one of the leads was phenomenally successful, both in terms of execution, and reception (with sales of the book boosting hugely on the back of its airing). And it seems Sky 1 have taken heed of what made that show so good, with a strong visual, great characters and excellent performances from a strong cast. Episode one is very much scene-setting, establishing Cathy and Eamonn's home lives, and the circumstances that lead to each of their personal flights: Eamonn's descent from promising boxer to criminal, and Cathy's fall into care when her home life takes a turn for the worse and she ends up behind bars. Both characters are played excellently by their respective actors: O'Connell in particular is the picture of volatility (as he invariably is in his roles), and he wears the mark of a man defined by rage and violence perfectly, even in this first episode before we have had much of an introduction to his nature. Opposite him, newcomer Joanna Vanderham is just as impressive, though her performance is far more understated- she offers a subtle emotional balance to O'Connell's aggression, and there is a touching tenderness to the performance that will make for a poignant counterpoint to Cathy's spiralling circumstances. Together they offer a compelling chemistry- they are like a near-modern Romeo and Juliet- though not only separated by space and situation like Shakespeare's most famous lovers; Cathy and Eamonn are victims of their own romance, which is both dangerous and entirely enveloping, and as we scale both the highs and lows of their relationship the easiest thing to believe is their utter devotion to one another. The cast is mostly very impressive, with excellent turns by The Take alumni Kierston Wareing and the always great Keith Allen, while special praise has to go to Burn Gorman who is brilliant as Richard Gates. Cockney productions like this often unfortunately encourage the kind of acting usually seen around Christmas time in Eastenders- i.e. overblown, un-refined and pantomimey- just watch any copy-cat Guy Ritchie film. Everyone looks like they're fresh from the Danny Dyer/Tamer Hassan school of acting (which incidentally owes a lot to the Dick Van Dyke school for Cockney Studies). But that certainly isn't the case here. Without wanting to give too much away about the second episode, when things really begin to move along for Cathy, as the tone takes a grimmer turn, it is all about the appearance and performance of Alan Cumming as transvestite Desrae, which it inevitably was always going to be given the character. But, despite the potential for Cumming to merely dial up the camp and steal the show with an over-exuberant Lily Savage style performance, his is far more refined than that- and put me in mind, at least in terms of its authenticity of Cillian Murphy's breath-taking and near-heart-breaking turn in Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto. The show looks great, since the flagship status has afforded the show the luxury of being shot in high-definition, and the difference is telling. The film-makers have managed to achieve a highly textured visual aesthetic which is evocative of both Martina Cole's recent past time-setting (the 60s), and the gritty realism needed to depict her starring underworld cultures. It's Martina Cole, so you'd immediately expect a lot of swearing, and a lot of claret, and The Runaway does the business on both accounts, to the point of feeling a touch over-the-top at times, but then when the box is supposed to read London and New York underworld, this is perhaps a fairly true indication of those sub-cultures involved. And despite the accusations that The Runaway is no more than a high-gloss grim gangster production without Danny Dyer, it is not at all, for a start those sort of films/shows invariably lack a strong female voice. Indeed female characters tend to evaporate under the weight of their male counterparts- this is a viciously male world we are privy too- and it is down to Cole's ability and willingness to over more than simply one-dimensional females in her writing, who become compelling enough on-screen to command decent focus. Overall, despite my fears that wasn't the right sort of production to be placed as a Sky 1 flagship show, The Runaway is excellent- driven by strongly drawn, compelling characters, and the dynamics between them, and presented in a glossy, good-looking visual manner that lends itself well to the HD viewing experience. It might not be quite as good as The Take, but it definitely deserves watching. The Runaway begins its six episode run on Sky 1 tomorrow night, airing every Thursday at 9pm.

WhatCulture's former COO, veteran writer and editor.