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Spent review – Michelle de Swarte’s riches-to-rags comedy is astonishing
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Spent review – Michelle de Swarte’s riches-to-rags comedy is astonishing

There is an uncompromising ferocity to Michelle de Swarte on screen that I foolishly assumed had reached its full expression in the 2022 comedy horror The Baby. In that series, the standup and writer played a woman corralled into motherhood by a possessed infant. It was the perfect metaphor for the unending rapaciousness of children; it makes much more sense to consider them malevolent demons sucking us dry rather than vulnerable bundles in need of all our love and care.

The series was great, De Swarte sensational. Now, she has unleashed her talent – and her mesmeric presence – by writing and starring in the six‑part comedy drama Spent, based loosely on her experiences as a model.

De Swarte plays 38-year-old Mia, who is coming to the end of a successful modelling career in the US but still, as her ex-girlfriend back home in London puts it, spending money like it has a sell-by date. Mia’s accountant explains that she has spent $36,500 on brunch and more than $14,000 on crystals. “Over a year,” Mia explains. “You’re making it sound bad because you’re adding it all together.”

This is bravado talking, not ditsiness (the worst word, for the worst of all female character tropes). When the accountant tells her she must declare bankruptcy, Mia realises that this will apply only in the US and hightails it home to reconnect with her dysfunctional family, old friends and potential contacts to forge a new life.

Of course, everything has changed. Her ex, Jo (a superb Amanda Wilkin), a medic on an oncology ward and the grounded foil to Mia’s excesses, now has a fiancee, who hates Mia on principle, but possibly also with reason. Mia is rare among female characters in that she is genuinely dislikable. You may not feel it yourself – I would follow her anywhere – but you can understand those who do.

Mia’s mother, Chrissy, has taken on the care of a teenager, Ella (Eleanor Nawal), who was being neglected by one of the neighbours on their council estate, meaning Mia can’t use her old room as she had planned. Instead, she must sofa surf – at best. There is an interlude in a dogging area where a kind middle‑aged lady lets Mia sleep in the car while she takes on all-comers across the bonnet.

Mia tries to find modelling work and keep up the illusion that she is still rich and successful. The first gig secured by her agent, Mills (Peep Show’s Matt King, working a gloriously repellent combination of sleaze, incompetence and grim facial hair), is house-sitting for a posh woman called Jemima (Eva Pope); she finds Brixton “so vibrant”, arrives home early to introduce the subject of “gymkhana porn” and eventually pays Mia in cushions.

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At one point, Mia has to pawn her expensive watch (“It is a timepiece,” she says, as if picking the words from between her teeth with a cocktail stick), although she doesn’t want to. “Some people can play an instrument, some people have a degree, some people can speak a second language – I got this.” It is a consummate callback to one of the opening lines of the first episode, when Mia explains that, if you come from nothing, “you have to spend the poverty out of you”.

There is a lot going on in Spent, mirroring Mia’s chaotic energy, but never overwhelming the viewer. It is worth watching for the dry comedy alone, but it is the emotional heft that stays with you. Mia learns that you cannot truly go home again and that you cannot get through the second half of your life on the brio that powered you through the first.

We are introduced to characters struggling with their mental health and we are shown the consequences for those who depend on them or want to help them. There are moments between Mia and her sort-of-estranged father (Karl Collins) that leave you reeling – and wondering what sorcery got you from laughing at the description of an outdated mobile phone (“not much more than a pigeon and a wish”) to being winded by the brutality of the blows life can deal.

There are clunky bits, but it is an astonishingly accomplished debut. I wait with eager anticipation – and just a touch of fear – to see what De Swarte will do next.

Source: theguardian.com