Trauma review – presses our noses up against the window of parental grief

John Simm and Adrian Lester clash in Mike Barlett’s new series, following a bereaved dad focusing his rage on the doctor who operated on his son

John Simm as Dan Bowker in Trauma.

John Simm as Dan Bowker in Trauma.Photograph: Alex Bailey/ITV

Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett restrained himself from killing a child during series two of the hit domestic potboiler on BBC One, even though it looked to be going that way several times. But in Trauma, he goes a step further and presses our noses painfully up against the window of parental grief.

Young Alex Bowker (Albie Marber) is all curly hair and no sharp edges, not the surly teen of TV cliche and, while not oversentimentalised, his relationship with his dad, Dan (John Simm), is warm and communicative in their final brief phone call before banal disaster strikes.

We don’t see the blade or the perpetrator in action, just a worried mother (Lindsey Marshall) on the doorstep and three young men on bikes too small for them, lurking with intent outside a chicken shop.

Then we meet Jon Allerton (a brilliantly buttoned-up Adrian Lester) as he rushes to the trauma unit of the London hospital where Alex is taken for treatment. It’s just a flesh wound, he reassures Dan as the two men lock eyes over his son’s supine body on a trolley to theatre.

But minutes later, Dan stumbles in on the crash team vainly cajoling his son’s lifeless heart with electricity. It is a medical-drama standby I could have done without, the stricken relative seeing the dreadful moment of defibrillation when they should be waiting elsewhere. But it is unavoidable here if the rest of the drama is to make sense.

Marc Evans’s direction, in the immediate aftermath, somehow manages to capture the unreality of shock, the trippy quality of everyday objects and the impossible passage of time as the initial hammer-blow sends out ripples of distress. The sound design is also superb, evoking Dan’s descent into the tunnel of grief.

The next three episodes hang on one word, spoken by the surgeon’s close colleague Nora (Jemima Rooper) as the boy hovers between life and death. “Jon,” she says, perhaps too urgently, and Allerton’s eyes dart left and right for a single second. In that moment, we know the man who saved his daughter from falling off a rock face in the show’s opening moments may not be as dependable or infallible as he seems.

Marshall has me in tears, folded in half with grief, her heart breaking on the white hospital floor. “You said it was going to be all right,” growls Dan, eyes fixed on the surgeon like he’s pinning him to a corkboard. Simm has the tougher job here, often given dialogue that clearly states his character’s motivation. (“I’m looking for someone to blame,” he says at the funeral.) Bartlett’s characters are far more emotionally direct than real people, forcing subtext into the daylight.

We know Dan’s rage will be directed at Jon from this point on, which begs the question: why isn’t it on the killers? Because Bartlett wants to talk about class war, not to dissect what drives teens to pull knives on each other. Dan wonders aloud if his son would still be alive if he had been born to money and had better life chances. If he had sent him to private school. “He died because of me. Because I’m a failure. I wasn’t born to the right people and neither was my son.” This line pushed the limits of believable dialogue, but Simms’ delivery is so grounded in contained anguish that he practically draws blood with it. Bartlett, with his theatre background, knows how to hit that sweet spot between the viewer on their sofa and the back row of the stalls.

Dan looks at Jon’s sharp suit and expensive car and Googles his psychiatrist wife and lovely daughter who hopes to go to medical school and all he sees is the vast foot of privilege coming down on his head. These two men were at war long before the body count reached one.

Back in his sarcastically large kitchen, almost as large and lofty as the church holding the funeral – a moral judgment of a kitchen if ever I saw one – Jon carries on as before. But as he straightens his pristine tie and kisses his beautiful wife, the exaggerated idyll becomes a strategic target in the coming battle.

Dan gets a job working in the hospital canteen, stacking paper cups while the spitfires in his head start their engines. Child murder aside, I’m keen to see where Bartlett takes this next.

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