The Split review – Abi Morgan’s shiny lawyers show life in all its wondrous mess

Nicola Walker stars in this gorgeously slick, witty and thoroughly grown-up tale of high-end divorce lawyers by the Bafta-winning writer

I am never bothering to watch a drama that doesn’t show people having a laugh ever again. That was my greatest takeaway from the new drama by Abi Morgan, who won Baftas for Sex Traffic and The Iron Lady, and an Emmy for The Hour, and is not quite as flippant as it sounds.

The meat of the thing lay in the story of two generations of lawyers working the high-end divorce circuit in their respective firms. In the first of six episodes, Hannah (Nicola Walker, leading a uniformly fine set of performances) has just left Defoes, which her parents founded. Her mother, Ruth (Deborah Findlay), refused to step down as promised and let Hannah, the ever-responsible oldest of her three daughters, take over, so Hannah departed and started at another, equally shiny top-flight family law firm. More chaotic middle child Nina (Annabel Scholey) – vestiges of the party-girl-she-was trailing behind her like the drifts of papers that fall in her wake as she rushes, late, to meetings – is still at Defoes.

Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan (as Nathan) in The Split.
Party people … Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan (as Nathan) in The Split. Photograph: BBC/Sister Pictures/Mark Johnson

The world of big divorce cases being small, by the time the episode is out, the two sisters are on opposing sides of a custody case involving a comedian, Rex Pope (played by Mathew Baynton, whose nervy soulfulness works perfectly), and his soon-to-be-ex-wife-and-agent. Defoes has semi-poached a big businessman fish from Hannah, and the fish’s wife, Goldie, hires Hannah in her turn. There’s much more, but it’s all superbly paced and never overwhelming.

Sub-plots include: Nina having sex with Rex; youngest Defoe daughter, Rose, getting married and already having to push away doubts; dad Oscar returning unannounced after a 30-year absence for reasons yet unknown; and one of Hannah’s new colleagues being an old friend with whom she once had A Thing and who is totally up for Another Thing (or rather, another bit of very much the same Thing) despite the fact that Hannah is now married to and has three children with Nathan (Stephen Mangan, no relation, in case you were wondering).

Oh yes, the meat of the thing is a generous joint, rich, juicy and marbled with possibility. The interplay of family and office politics, the shifting perspectives on marriage from people at different stages of loving and being left, the ramifications of abandonment and failure, the fragility of family, all of it refracted – still so rare! Still such potential! – through a primarily female lens is a meal by itself. But as my grandmother used to say with a sigh of satisfaction after Sunday lunch: The meat was good, but oh! The gravy!

The gravy here is all the scenes in between the “important” ones, in which the family, or friends, or colleagues just … talk. Rib each other. Mutter dark, pointed jokes. Tease. Undermine each other, or bolster their connections by being witty, clever, daft and sarky. Just like real family, friends and colleagues. Just like real people. Morgan’s characters tell us most in the interstices, when the world falls away. The three drunk sisters trying on their mother’s clothes while the surprise 70th birthday party she didn’t want unfolds downstairs. An overloaded goodbye from a female friend that tells Goldie all she needs to know about why her husband is leaving. Hannah and Nathan diving back into a party because they’ve forgotten their kids (“Children!”); the agent-wife telling Rex he can’t use the stuff about her mum’s cancer in the act, but her leaking milk everywhere while breastfeeding is fine; Nathan plunging through the revellers when the younger set take over the playlist. “This music must die! You’ll kill all the old people!” Just throwaway lines, but they mean everything. They are the lubrication that allows the characters to pivot and show us their lives and selves in the round. It’s the hardest and most vital kind of dialogue and Morgan is a master of it. It makes you realise what we’re missing almost all the rest of the time on TV.

Within a gorgeously slick production, all the messiness of life is here and looks set to get even messier over the next five weeks, as life tends to do. I already feel myself relaxing in the knowledge that I do not have to steel myself to endure unnatural histrionics, looping twists or swooping personality changes in protagonists I already feel I know, understand and am already deeply invested in. I feel like an adult watching adults, one of the scarcest and best feelings as a viewer I know. More, again, soon, please.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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