Set in what Evans calls a “Gothamized” London, it’s a heightened world that’s both familiar and strange whether you know the city or not. Evans opted to remove the major landmarks from the skyline, yet the feeling of the different boroughs the show traverses are distinct and recognisable. The capital is the perfect setting for a show like this, an absolute cultural melting pot of organised crime which can at times be hard to follow. We meet the Albanians and the Kurds, the Nigerians and the Pakstanis as well as the travelling community who’ve been inadvertently been dragged into the frey. Each faction has different objectives and allegiances attached to different parts of the underworld, and the Wallaces ‘business’ concerns cover protection for the gangs controlling the docks, the drug trade, property development, money laundering and more.
At the centre of the show, Joe Cole is electric as Sean, the “boy who would watch cities burn to prove he’s a man”. A refined maniac, drunk on grief and power, holding court in front of the most influential and dangerous people in the city, Sean calls a complete moratorium on all criminal activity until he finds his father’s killer, an unpopular decision, with repercussions.
Gangs Of London is a family melodrama as well as a violent thriller, with relationships tested between the Wallaces – mum (Michelle Fairly), a dignified Lady Macbeth type, her boys Sean and Billy (Brian Vernel) her daughter Jackie (Valene Kane), the one family member who seems to have escaped – and their surrogate family the Dumanis.
Then there’s Elliot (Sope Dirisu), the closest we get to a ‘hero’, a former squaddy and low level thug who spots an opportunity to rise through the ranks by getting close to the vulnerable Sean. His path becomes more important as the show progresses, and Dirisu is tasked with a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to fight sequences. Not formerly a trained martial artist (in any meaningful way) Dirisu has risen to the challenge with panache, and he’s mesmerising to watch in action.
Let’s talk about that violence though. Gangs Of London opens with a man being set on fire and dropped off a building. He’s an incidental character we don’t hear about again and it’s an intro which sets out the show’s stall clearly. There will be blood. People will be burned alive and drowned in concrete, teeth and fingernails will be ripped out, and there will be more shootings, stabbings and pummellings than it’s possible to keep track of. This isn’t exactly glamorized violence, but Evans does bring his East Asian influences to the show, with certain set pieces so carefully choreographed they feel like dances. Other times Gangs Of London leans heavily into horror – grim, gory and relentless. There’s a trickle of black humour in there, too, of the very darkest kind.