The Thief His Wife and the Canoe review | Dark and comical ITV series

A star rating of 5 out of 5.

It's the story you wouldn't believe was true if you didn't watch it play out on the news every day. Back in 2002, John Darwin from Hartlepool staged his own death by pretending to be killed at sea while out in his canoe in order to claim much-needed money from life insurance to pay his extortionate debts

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The only person who knew he was really alive was his wife, Anne Darwin. After years of hiding in plain sight (literally next door), John decided enough was enough and he would move to Panama to live a long and happy life with his wife, even taking snaps with the estate agent who was hooking them up with property over there.

The great unravelling came when John discovered he couldn't truly live and work in Panama due to a change in visas which would mean he'd have to produce a real birth certificate, which of course, he didn't have.

Eventually after trying to hand his 'dazed and confused' self in, John's lie fell apart, and Anne's involvement in it became apparent as well. They were both found guilty of fraud and sentenced to six years in prison - though they both served a little under three.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the story that not only gripped the North East, but the nation as a whole, was Anne. Who was she? Why did she do the things she did? John told the lie, but Anne had to live it every single day.

It's these questions ITV aims to answer in its new true crime series, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, written by Unforgotten creator Chris Lang.

The four-part miniseries is told from the perspective of Anne (played by Monica Dolan), who narrates the bizarre tale while also grounding the viewer with the unspoken emotional impact of it all.

Dolan, who nails the look of Anne perfectly, is a complete triumph in the role. The actress handles the complexities of Anne and her story with exemplary flair, leaving viewers with a confusing final picture of the character. Is she to be pitied or judged? That's very much for you to decide.

Dolan's multi-layered performance is contrasted surprisingly well with Eddie Marsan's as John. His portrayal offers the drama some of the most contradictory moments – he is at once completely farcical but also incredibly menacing in tone.

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The drama also poses questions about how much control John had over Anne in going along with the lie. It's a braver version. It would be all-too-tempting to go down the hard comedy route and tell the story of narcissist John, a fantasist with dreams wilder than anything he could feasibly achieve.

But what Lang does well is balance the drama with the humour of this completely absurd scheme from John, with the difficulties Anne is seen going through. Never once do we lose sight of the crimes committed by both parties, but the series is undoubtedly stronger for balancing the highs and lows, the pain and joy, and the darkness with light.

This is very much echoed in the stunning cinematography. Blindingly bright Panama is juxtaposed with dreary Seaton Carew (take it from this writer from the North East, you don't need to adjust your sets - Hartlepool really is that rainy).

Director Richard Laxton provides a gloriously bleak setting in the North East, echoing the Darwins' terrible financial situation, while at the same time flipping to a plain glorious Panama showing what Anne and John could have had if ego didn't get in the way. It's pathetic fallacy at its very primal, and it really works in this series about haves and have nots.

Tied in with a jaunty soundtrack and ITV has really pulled off a winner. Just like the original true story, fictional Anne and John Darwin will stay with you long after the episodes end, as you ponder all the unanswered questions the nation still has. It's quirky, off-beat, hard-hitting and truly memorable.

Really the only flaw with this series is that it's not longer. With a story so incredibly complex, bizarre, and spanning such a long time, there's undoubtedly bits they left on the cutting floor.

John famously had a strained relationship with his father, that went someway to defining his complex personality traits needed to pull off such an audacious crime. It's hard not to yearn for an acting masterclass from Marsan in these scenes just as he gives throughout the series.

ITV is right to take a punt on this and put it on the big Easter Sunday slot. Aside from purely how brilliant this series is, how perfect Marsan and Dolan are in the roles, and visually what a feast for the eyes this is, there's something incredibly poetic about having the resurrection of John Darwin on the same day as the resurrection of Jesus. If it wasn't true, you wouldn't believe it.

The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe begins on Sunday 17th April at 9pm on ITV and ITV Hub. You can also get a 30-day free trial of ITV Hub+ on Amazon Prime Video here.

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