The Light in the Hall on Channel 4 review: a slow-burn study of grief and obsession

 (Alistair Heap / Channel 4 )
(Alistair Heap / Channel 4 )

Joanna Scanlan is an actress who excels at playing grieving, dogged women. In The Invisible Woman, she played Charles Dickens’ long-suffering wife Catherine; in her BAFTA-award winning appearance in After Love she played a woman whose husband dies and leaves her with more questions than answers.

In Channel 4’s new 6-part drama The Light in the Hall, she not so much plays as inhabits the role of Sharon Roberts, a woman whose daughter, Ela, went missing, presumed murdered, eighteen years ago.

The culprit is Joe Pritchard, a local boy, and the series opens just as Pritchard is released on parole after serving a life sentence for Ela’s murder. Naturally, this sets the scene for an epic confrontation, as Sharon becomes fixated on finding Pritchard and getting him to confess where he hid her daughter’s body. The problem: he insists he can’t remember.

It’s gripping stuff, made all the more so by strong performances across the board. Iwan Rheon plays Pritchard with deep-set, haunted eyes and a tormented air, while Sharon’s rapid descent into obsession after hearing of his release could veer into melodrama but is made believable by Scanlan.

This is her show, make no mistake. Sharon is a mess of broken edges: we discover at the start of the show that she has kept the light on in the family hall for eighteen years, ever since the day Ela went missing. She runs a support group for women who have lost loved ones to crime but neglects her living daughter Greta (played with simmering resentment by Annes Elwy). She acts rashly one moment and with cold calculation the next.

Haunting her footsteps is journalist Cat (Alexandra Roach), who has her own unfinished business in Llanemlyn: a childhood friend of Ela, she left to become a journalist in the big city and is now attempting to dig up the past for answers and presumably, a juicy spread in the paper.

Dogged: Alexandra Roach as Cat (Alistair Heap / Channel 4)
Dogged: Alexandra Roach as Cat (Alistair Heap / Channel 4)

As you can imagine, she’s not treated with great warmth by the town’s inhabitants – and to be honest, Cat is the show’s weak link. Her version of finding answers is scaring Joe Pritchard off with too-direct questions after he agrees to talk. As he flees, she screams after him: “What did you do with Ela’s body?” Cat’s motives are also suspect: she claims to be doing this “for Ela”, but the locals are suspicious.

Indeed, at times the most sympathetic person in the show is Pritchard – which says something for the rollercoaster ride that this show is, though that’s not to say it’s fast-paced. A lot of the action here is painstaking detective work: Cat asks some questions, gets a slender clue and doggedly pursues it to the next one. Every revelation is hard-won.

The series is set in the heart of West Wales, and though the town of Llanemlyn is invented, the heartbeat of Welsh country life is all-too familiar. I grew up in a village not unlike this one, and the inclusion of nicknames – “Thai Dai”, for the man who briefly married a Thai woman in the 90s – and small-town gossip rings true. There’s even a Welsh-language version of the series – Y Golau (The Light) – for which Scanlan made the supreme effort of learning Welsh, which has already aired on S4C.

While it veers at times slightly too close to melodrama – some of Sharon’s decisions, which I won’t spoil here, seem slightly unrealistic even for a woman driven to desperation – this is a fascinating, slow-burn study of grief, obsession and the need for some kind of closure.

And Scanlan is exquisite, while Rheon matches her beat-for-beat. They’re worthy adversaries, and their battle is a gripping watch.

The Light in the Hall airs on Channel 4 on January 4 2023