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Riptide, Channel 5, review: A run-of-the-mill murder mystery lifted by soap royalty

Performances from EastEnders’ Jo Joyner and Neighbours’ Peter O’Brien gave this Channel 5 thriller some much needed depth

When we first met them in their idyllic beachside home, newlyweds Sean (Peter O’Brien) and Alison (Jo Joyner) seemed to have everything – love, money, and a big, blended family. But soon, Channel 5’s family-drama-cum-whodunnit Riptide saw the couple’s pasts catch up with them, their perfect lives unravelling spectacularly.

When Sean failed to return from a surfing trip, Alison struggled to accept that he was really gone; meanwhile, viewers were spoilt for choice when it came to potential explanations – or culprits – behind his disappearance.

Starring soap opera royalty (Joyner from EastEnders, O’Brien from Neighbours) the richly plotted Riptide sent interweaving narrative threads spinning from the outset. Its first scene saw Alison preparing Sean’s birthday dinner – an important meal, not least because it would bring the two halves of their family together. While Alison’s 16-year-old daughter Hannah lived with the couple in relative harmony, the appearance of Sean’s adult son Ethan was somewhat fraught: “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come”, he said as they sat round the table.

Peter O’Brien as Sean Jo Joyner as Alison (Photo: Channel 5)

“You’re here now”, replied his dad – but any veneer of family harmony was shattered when Ethan cornered Alison upstairs after dinner. Implying that she was only after his father’s money, Ethan tried to blackmail his stepmother into signing a postnup by threatening to distribute a photo of Hannah in her underwear. “Ethan, I don’t want it to be like this,” said Alison. “Well, when someone throws away a 30-year marriage for their masseuse, it’s hard for it to be any other way,” he retorted.

Alison and Sean might have wanted to focus on the future, but Ethan wasn’t the only one who felt that old scores had been left unsettled in the wake of their newfound love; Alison’s ex-husband Michael clearly wanted them to be more than co-parents, while Hannah’s boyfriend Logan had failed to meet her as promised on the day Sean disappeared. As we glimpsed suspicious texts between the teens, the mystery deepened – what did Logan know, and could he and Ethan be working together?

Certainly, there was no shortage of narrative meat to sink your teeth into. While Riptide sometimes seemed to have bitten off more than it could chew – at Sean’s funeral, for instance, where all those antagonists collided – its well-paced writing and confident performances meant that any instances of overreaching were short-lived and easily forgiven.

O’Brien’s Sean was both breezy and brittle, portraying the ease of someone unaccustomed to hardship and bristling at his son’s mistrust of his new wife. Joyner’s Alison was similarly affable, though less naïve – there was a steely determination in her eyes as she placated Ethan that telegraphed a disconnect between her real feelings and conciliatory words.

Clues sprinkled through the episode (“we both know what a temper he’s got”, said Hannah of her dad Michael) provided a compelling backstory for a character who might not have been gold digging, but wasn’t going to ask too many questions on her trajectory from struggling single mother to affluent housewife.

None of Riptide’s characters were wholly likeable – while the drama played a risky game by withholding sympathetic protagonists, that nuance was among its greatest strengths. As it stands, almost any of the people we’ve been introduced to could have either killed Sean or masterminded his murder.

Culminating in an illuminating flashback to an argument on the sand just before he set off surfing, the first episode of Riptide promised a lot. Let’s hope the next three episodes can deliver.

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