Friday 24 February 2012

‘What would you say defines Essex?’

In Basildon, Royal Court, London

Any play which includes a character ballsy enough to describe sex as ‘stirring the porridge’ is a winner in my books. David Eldridge is an exceptionally funny writer and, more importantly, he channels his comedy with perfect precision through each of his characters. And yet, despite all the laughs and some searingly tender moments, there is almost always a moment in Eldridge’s plays when I find myself pulling back. His plays are so clever but they are tidy, too, and at some point the play’s blueprint grows a little too clear. Suddenly, and regrettably, I become aware that I am in the theatre and all that wonderful life and colour begins to drain away.

That is not to say there aren’t some brilliant moments in Eldridge’s latest work, In Basildon. Although it is set in 2010, the Essex home in which Len is dying – and his family are gathered – seems trapped in the past. The wallpaper is dreary, the furniture is old and the atmosphere is stale. A lot of the time, it feels like the characters are trying to make their words heard through an air clogged up with glue. That glue is the grudge, which sisters Doreen and Maureen have held onto for so long; the glue that should hold families together, has ripped this one apart.

This anger has grown so strong that it overpowers everything else – often to great comic effect. This is why Act One, pitched to perfection by director Dominic Cooke, is so funny and so strong: the resentment and regret overshadows everything, allowing for wildly inappropriate but bloody amusing brawls. Every so often, though, cracks appear beneath this fossilised fury. As best friend Ken (Peter Wight – an exquisitely soft showman) bulldozes through his gags, he occasionally stumbles across shards of pain and stalls, bowed by his grief. And when Len dies at the end of Act One, all the adults – just for a moment – become children. Standing around the bed, holding hands and singing, they look like kids in a playground. It is a beautiful reminder of the strange reversal that death often brings about; it is a time when adults become children and children become adults and the rumbling order of life is thrown into chaos.

Act One might contain straight-talking characters and bullseye punchlines but it is also brilliantly oblique. But as soon as Act Two begins, and ‘stuck up’ niece Shelley (Jade Williams) and her posh boyfriend, Tom (Max Bennet), join the throng, the bleakness clears and the play, at least for me, becomes too black and white. Not long after arriving, Tom even poses the question: ‘What would you say defines Essex?’ While the arrival of Shelley and Tom does provoke important debate, with ex Captain of Industry Ken growling at delicate, writer Tom – ‘Why do you think we’re apathetic?’ - it is bare and blatant discussion. The play becomes a platform rather than a stage.

The presence of these heightened ‘outsider’ characters also sharpens the edges of the run down Basildon folk. Everyone and everything becomes a touch too defined. This suspicion is compounded with Act Four, which flashes back to 1992 - a time when Maureen and Doreen were supposedly a lot softer and far kinder to each other. What were once beautifully ambiguous creations become a tad simplified. Linda Bassett is brilliant as bulldog sister, Maureen, and in the earlier acts, she straddles so many possibilities. When she quietly declares her love to Ken, it is impossible to tell whether this confession is genuine, or simply a money grabbing ploy. Her open mouthed but silent, gasping sorrow gapes with so many complex but concealed emotions. Yet, once we are shown her dubiously soft-hearted and younger self in Act Four, she feels cruder and less credible. The play, in light of this final act, feels similarly overexposed – as if it has been clawed open to reveal the mechanics, chugging away, inside.

Till 24 March 2012


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