Spent | Review of Michelle De Swarte's new semi-autobiographical comedy © BBC/Various Artists Limited
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Review of Michelle De Swarte's new semi-autobiographical comedy

BBC comedy chefs have said they want to make more laugh-out-loud comedies and fewer semi-autobiographical comedy-dramas. And watching Spent you can understand why, as it falls into that familiar gap of being neither consistently funny enough nor emotionally compelling enough to fulfil either side of the equation.

It’s loosely based on the real-life experiences of creator and star Michelle De Swarte, whose modelling career imploded soon after she took a tumble on the Gucci catwalk – as well as having the temerity to enter her mid-20s – whereupon she returned to London and became a stand-up.

In Spent, her character Mia makes the same transatlantic journey after her lavish New York lifestyle led to bankruptcy, leading her to wash back up in Brixton, broke and homeless, though too proud to admit it. 

She’s self-centred, but probably redeemable (of course), with the audience torn between sympathy for her situation and indifference because it’s of her own making. Nor is she  especially empathetic to those around her and on whose good nature she imposes to survive. She’s needlessly mean to the the schoolgirl her mum has all-but adopted, for example.

King in Spent

Equally, Mia is often treated like shit, too. Peep Show’s Matt King, above, makes a memorable appearance as her cynical, shady former agent and when he sets her up with a job on her return to the UK, it’s less catwalk and more dog-walk, as she’s asked to pet-sit for the sort of privileged woman who’s driving the gentrification of the South London enclave. Such new money stands in contrast to her father, an old-school Brixton resident struggling to meet the rent on his shabby flat and occupying an uncertain space between ‘bit of a character’ and ‘mentally unwell’.

The pet-sitting is clearly a ridiculous situation for a fashion agent to broker, but Spent never seems quite sure how outlandish it wants to be. There are funny scenes, such as the one mining the silliness of Mia becoming an accidental close-up voyeur in a dogging session, but then another has an underage model – a cipher for the young Mia – in line for a potential sexual assault after being plied with drugs and blinded by the glamorous image and escape from poverty that modelling promises. Is this is a flippant comedy or a troubling first-hand commentary on the evils of the fashion industry? The tone of De Swarte’s script changes like the wind.

Even the question of how to fill the void that fame, adulation and lavish retail therapy takes up when it all dries up is the driving force, but Spent seems sluggish in getting there. Mia very slowly re-establishes relationships and reluctantly facing up to the fact he’s going to have to redefine herself beyond the glitz of the New York fashion scene.

On the plus side, De Swarte a brilliantly engaging performer, lighting up the screen (and with a suitably eye-catching wardrobe) while exuding a playful likeability that transcends her character’s many less endearing qualities. Plus she has a lovely chemist with Amanda Wilkin, who plays her no-nonsense best pal Jo, the real hero of the piece.

But charismatic as she is, it’s not enough to overcome the limitations of the script and make us really care about her character’s plight. Nor does the script sparkle with enough witty lines for that not to matter, despite the broader comedy of some of the wilder predicaments she finds herself in.

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Review date: 8 Jul 2024
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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