The Gathering review – elite gymnastics thriller is like somersaulting off a cliff

by 24britishtvMay 14, 2024, 11:01 p.m. 24
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We open in Liverpool, with a group of teenagers having vast amounts of fun and being as monumentally careless as only adolescents can at a seaside illegal rave. Half a mile away, a girl is found unresponsive at the shoreline. We cut to one month earlier, to meet the prospective ravers and see if we can spot the one who is due to come a cropper.

Such is the fairly standard premise of new six-part drama The Gathering, written by novelist Helen Walsh in her small-screen debut. It is made slightly fresher by being set partly in the world of elite sports – in this case, gymnastics – and partly in the world of free running (think parkour mixed with acrobatics, a sport that would put the fear of God in your mother if she ever saw you at it). Bridging the two is gymnast Kelly (Eva Morgan), a working-class girl who likes to hang out with her free-running crowd – especially Adam (Sonny Walker) – even though she has been warned by her coach, who is keen that her star pupil doesn’t smash herself to bits jumping across rooftops, that doing so jeopardises her place in the team.

Also in the team, but coming at it from the other side of the tracks, is Jessica (Sadie Soverall). Where Kelly has a warmly supportive widowed father who scrapes together the training fees every month, Jessica has private schooling, piano lessons and a pushy mother (Vinette Robinson) trying to live through her talented but not massively enthusiastic daughter.

It feels for a good long while like something between a Bunty comic strip and an 80s problem novel for teens, as the girls struggle with their respective disadvantages (Jessica’s include asthma, and her inhaler is Chekhov’s gun in a sports bag), fall out, become friends again, fight (sort of) over a boy, and get involved in skulduggery and misunderstandings that result in one of them losing her place in the team. For the first two episodes at least, and despite the knowledge of the unresponsive body at the shoreline a month from now, things feel oddly low stakes.

In the second half of the series, things thicken and improve as we move beyond the gymnastic angst and into a world in which people have real problems. (No disrespect to elite athletes, but we never dive deep enough into Kelly and Jess’s milieu to feel what must be its all-consuming nature.) Then it becomes more of a study in intergenerational problems, deprivations and the sins of fathers and mothers being visited on their children. Adam’s difficult background and his history with Kelly’s family are revealed. The effects of mental illness; the prejudices faced by refugees; lack of money and the need to slip into criminality in order to survive; class snobbery; plus a bit of moustache-twirling villainry which seems to come from a different show entirely – all are thrown into the mix as we wait for the identity of the unconscious girl to be revealed and amass a list of possible suspects behind whatever happened to her.

It all works well enough, while remaining slightly underbaked. You feel as though a decision should have been taken earlier on to decide which, among the many things it almost is, it should have properly been. A murder mystery? An interrogation of class and its barriers? A drama for and about teenage lives and concerns? A portrait of the toll elite sports take on their participants? It gestures towards all of these but doesn’t deliver satisfactorily on any count.

It muscles through, however, courtesy of some fine performances – especially from Morgan as Kelly, with her poignant blend of brashness and vulnerability, and Soverall, who never lets Jess descend into spoiled-little-rich-girl territory. And the displays of urban acrobatics capture like nothing else that brief, beautiful time of life when, whatever your background, simple youth and health, the joy of being able to use your body as an instrument for pleasure and to unlock possibilities makes you feel that life is worth living and will be worth living for ever. Those few years when however bad your problems get, you always know you can escape them for a few seconds by double-somersaulting yourself off a bridge or cliff, landing on your feet and impressing your pals. What a time to be alive.

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