Rules of the Game review: Maxine Peake is on dazzling form in this clever, understated drama

·3-min read
 (BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire)
(BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire)

This new BBC four part miniseries is an understated delight with well-drawn, interesting characters, a meticulously crafted plot and dramatic tension cascading from all sides.

Maxine Peake, on dazzling form, plays Sam Thompson, the battle-hardened COO of Fly Dynamics, a sportswear company to rival JD Sports, which is about to go public. First though it needs to clean up its toxic work environment: enter Maya, the new HR director played by Rakhee Thakrar, who is trying to start a new life after escaping (or has she?) from an abusive relationship and wants to rid the company of its ‘lad culture.’

Dark secrets begin to emerge. An employee lists examples of women being mistreated within the company; Maya begins to ask questions about a young female employee, Amy, who died in mysterious circumstances ten years before. The two brothers in charge ooze malevolent charm.

Maxine Peake as battle-hardened COO Sam Thompson (BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire)
Maxine Peake as battle-hardened COO Sam Thompson (BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire)

Sam goes to work one day to find a body in reception – I know! It sounds ridiculous, but bear with me – and the rest is told through her memories as she is questioned in police custody. What follows is an unusually intelligent discourse about the roles of women in and out of the workplace, and women’s part in the ‘game’ with regards to consent, blame and complicity. “We’re whores if we like it and frigid if we don’t,” says Sam. “And when we’re not desirable anymore that’s it, we’re invisible. We play the same game. All of us. Until we’re voted off the island.” “And when were you voted off?” asks the policewoman. “I run the f**king island,” is Sam’s devastating reply.

The series has a strong female influence - the script is written by Ruth Fowler, and it’s directed by new talent Jenny Sheridan. Alison Steadman has a star turn as battleaxe Anita, the controlling mother of brothers Owen and Gareth, the CEO and CFO respectively of the company.

Alison Steadman as battleaxe Anita (BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire)
Alison Steadman as battleaxe Anita (BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire)

Fowler’s brilliant script is peppered with killer lines and laced with dark humour (”Do you think Tess is an alcoholic,” asks a wide-eyed Maya. “Probably, most of us are,” replies Sam dryly). According to the writer, the show was partly inspired by the case of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, and gives an insight into “many women’s experiences.”

“The politics of being a woman in a man’s world had never really interested us until Harvey Weinstein went down for it,” Fowler writes, “and then suddenly everyone wanted to know the gory details. What was too nasty, unpleasant and shocking [before] became hard currency in 2017, and it was OK to be a woman, writing about women and assault and that insidious place we all occupy when our gender defines our status, our power, our jobs, our roles, our identities and we must either play the game or let it destroy us.”

Rakhee Thakrar as new HR director Maya (BBC/The Forge/Brian Sweeney)
Rakhee Thakrar as new HR director Maya (BBC/The Forge/Brian Sweeney)

Yes, you could cavil, Rules of the Game isn’t perfect. The characters may be a touch over-drawn and there is something a bit cold in the setting – somewhere indistinct in the North of England. It’s low-budget and by shining so brightly Peake easily eclipses the rest of the cast. But there is a lot to praise in this clever drama. I look forward to enjoying more of Fowler and Sheridan’s work.

Rules of the Game continues on BBC One on January 12 at 9pm and is available to stream on iPlayer

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