Dreamland review: Lily Allen stars in bittersweet seaside comedy

Trish (Freema Agyeman) and Mel (Lily Allen) in Dreamland. (Sky)
Trish (Freema Agyeman) and Mel (Lily Allen) in Dreamland. (Sky)

Welcome to Dreamland, a working-class melodrama starring Lily Allen, filled with family friction which is akin to mainlining early Mike Leigh, while introducing audiences to the delights of Margate.

Taking a leaf from Life Is Sweet, this quintessential slice of life series features the O’Sullivan family in all their shapes and sizes. They're a clan who are all drawn together in celebration, as eldest sister Trish (Freema Agyeman) and her husband Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) welcome a new arrival into the world.

Within minutes, co-writer and on-screen sister Gabby Best (Clare) has offered up concise introductions to all her key players, in this deceptively intricate melodrama.

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She is an aspiring writer and jobbing journalist, Trish juggles Ikea nesting instincts alongside a real estate career, while Leila works for the council collecting rubbish.

Elsewhere there is matriarch Cheryl (Frances Barber), who spends time with her new friend Diane (Martina Laird), while the oldest O’Sullivan member is simply known as Nan (Sheila Reid).

Leila (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), Trish (Freema Agyeman) and Nan (Sheila Reid) in Dreamland. (Sky)
Leila (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), Trish (Freema Agyeman) and Nan (Sheila Reid) in Dreamland. (Sky)

However, Dreamland requires a catalyst to inject some crucial drama into proceedings, which arrives in the form of middle sister Mel (Lily Allen) who is back from Paris and bringing more than her suitcase for company.

As the coach pulls up and holidaymakers shoulder barge her to one side, audiences are effortlessly introduced to this historical English hotspot.

It's an approach which sets the tone seamlessly, as ironic dialogue, bone dry one-liners, and the return of the unconventional O’Sullivan threatens to ruin this special occasion.

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Much of the pleasure to be had in these early episodes comes about through a combination of sardonic put downs, delivered with brutal honesty by disgruntled family members incapable of tact.

Matter of fact in their directness, yet relished as only home truths can be, they add essential layers to the plot which slowly unfolds.

Trish (Freema Agyeman) and Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) in Dreamland. (Sky)
Trish (Freema Agyeman) and Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) in Dreamland. (Sky)

That this Sky original starts to suffer under the cosh of narrative cliché early on — as all that solid character work goes to waste — is a real shame. Purely because Dreamland is imbued with such charm from its effervescent ensemble, that having all that undone by dramatic convenience is simply upsetting. An approach which may leave audiences longing for flashes of originality which never come.

The problems start when Mel arrives, bringing with her a reputation for creating chaos, disrupting dynamics, and upsetting family relationships. Similar in some respects to Bad Sisters, which made its debut on Apple TV+ last year, exchanges between the O’Sullivan sisters open up mountains of emotional baggage.

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By railroading Trish’s baby shower with an unexpected discovery of her own, Mel causes a domino effect which sends everything into freefall. This in turn increases friction between herself and Clare, while Spence plays his part under duress — when Mel experiences a moment of clarity.

Not that any of these revelations add additional drama, but instead crank up the cliché and encourage indifference, rather than making events more relatable.

Mel (Lily Allen) in Dreamland. (Sky)
Mel (Lily Allen) in Dreamland. (Sky)

Every single person in Dreamland, with the exception of Nan, are attempting to build their families a future in Margate, by reconciling relationships, seeking support from their sisters, and trying not to implode in the process. Cheryl is in denial, Clare lacks self-belief, and Mel is a mess, while Leila and Trish get by on bloody-minded optimism and love of family.

If this series succeeds nowhere else than in its ability to depict dramatic desperation – then Dreamland will have done enough. However, if a bittersweet Mike Leigh pastiche is not likely to be of interest, then audiences might do well to look elsewhere.

What other critics thought of Dreamland

Evening Standard: This Lily Allen comedy is a breath of fresh air (3 min read)

This is not because of any failure in the performances, either from the rarely seen Allen (How to Build a Girl), or an understated Barber (Dodger), but because kitchen sink melodramas are simply not for everyone.

Even if the cliched story in question is tinged with pathos, elegantly shot on location in an idyllic seaside town, as well as striking a perfect balance between pitch black humour and human frailty on route.

In truth, the longer audiences engage with this show, irrespective of its inherent lack of originality, the less inclined they will be to change channels. Dreamland might well be cliched, with more than its fair share of stereotypical archetypes, but despite all those apparent flaws, it still might surprise a few people.

Dreamland launches in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW from 9pm on Thursday, April 6 2023.