Big Little Lies****

Sky Atlantic

SHE has been a monstrous fash mag editor, the lover of a big game hunter and even marched around in Margaret Thatcher’s size six court shoes. But now Meryl Streep may have found her most terrifying role yet - as an interfering mother-in-law.

With Academy award-winners Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon among its cast, the first series of HBO’s Big Little Lies began the exodus of movie stars from the big screen to the small. If it was good enough for Nic and Reese it would be similarly dandy for Julia Roberts and Emma Stone in time to come.

How better, then, to up the ante at the start of season two than by hiring Meryl “Three Oscars” Streep to join the cast?

The new run began with Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) looking pensively out to sea, that international distress sign of troubled women the world over. Otherwise, the Californian sun was still shining and the mummies were looking yummier than ever as the new school term started.

Not that Streep’s character, who goes by the actor’s real name, Mary Louise (how’s that for having a part written for you?) is a dedicated follower of fashion. With her beige cardigan, comfy slacks and wire-rimmed glasses, Mary Louise looks more pussycat than sabre-toothed tigress. Do not be fooled, though. Her beloved son, “My Perry, my Perry!”, husband of Celeste (Kidman) is dead, and Mary Louise wants answers other than “he slipped and fell”.

Aiding Mary Lou in her search for answers is her black belt in passive-aggressive behaviour, saying one thing semi-sweetly while clearly meaning another, as when she runs into super-pushy estate agent Madeline (Witherspoon) at a cafe. “You’re very short,” she tells Madeline. “I don’t mean it in a negative way. Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.”

With that she is just getting started. Handily, if not entirely convincingly, Celeste is given to talking in her sleep and saying incriminating things about killing people. Not the kind of thing a woman wants to do with a jumbo-eared mother-in-law prowling around at night.

It is not just Mary Louise who has her doubts about how Perry died. It turns out there has been a lot of gossip locally, and the gal pals have acquired a nickname, The Monterey Five. A woman detective is on their case, too, watching and waiting. Will they be able to keep the big lie now that so many more little ones are piling up? Not if Mary Lou has her way.

Streep’s scenes with Witherspoon and Kidman are high camp played in deliciously low key style, with every glance a dagger, each exchanged smile enough to freeze the blood. The little town of Monterey is not big enough for all of them, and Mary Lou doesn’t look like the one who is going to leave. Oh goody.