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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
BARKING IN ESSEX
at Wyndham's

ZEBRA-PRINT DECOR
By KATE BASSETT

  Sheila Hancock, Lee Evans and Keeley Hawes/ Ph: Alastair Muir

What terrible taste! The interior decor of the Packer family's nouveau-riche mansion got a big laugh before any of its inhabitants had exchanged a word at the opening night of Barking in Essex – a West End, posthumous premiere for dramatist Clive Exton (who was more admired as a screenwriter in his lifetime).

The Packers are, evidently, "common as muck" and have spent truckloads of ill-gotten cash tarting up their house with no sophistication whatsoever. The place is all sweeping zebra-print drapes and garish gold stairs, with faux stag heads adorning the walls, moulded from day-glo plastic. Set in the hinterland east of London, Barking in Essex is a satirical comedy that ridicules morally shameless and mindlessly stupid lower-class materialists. (Barking is both the name of a regional town and the British slang for "crazy.")

Heavily peppering her nasal drawl with four-letter words and never batting an eyelid, Sheila Hancock stars as Emmie, the matriarch of the criminal Packer clan. Her son Alfie, a psychotic thief, is about to get out of gaol, but she isn't planning to throw a party. Rather, she is cramming everything she can into suitcases to do a runner, because, while he's been inside, she has cavalierly used up his stash of money.

Alfie's brother, Darnley – played by the comic-turned-actor Lee Evans – hardly looks set to save the day. A farcical idiot, he has just tried to become a millionaire under his own steam by appearing on a TV quiz show – only to answer a question about Alfred Tennyson by guessing he played football for Millwall F.C. Darnley's wife, Keeley Hawes' Chrissie, is scornful and treacherously mercenary, with an orange tan and diamond-studded high heels.

However, before they turn on each other, this clan has to dispense with an unwelcome guest, an imposter who says she's Alfie's lawyer and fiancée. Cue Karl Johnson's Rocco, the ludicrously decrepit, jovial hit man from across the road, shuffling around in his slippers.

Hancock's deadpan comic timing is good. Johnson appears to be enjoying himself. And Evans has a few moments of characteristic, scene-stealing, physical clowning – his body jerking like an automated monkey when he's in a tight corner, then ducking and diving like a boxer to avoid flying bullets.
 
Nonetheless, to be honest, those bits of business stick out like sore thumbs. Moreover, Exton’s script – written in 2005, two years before his death, aged 77 – is woefully feeble. One wonders how on earth director Harry Burton’s production landed financial backing or such a stellar cast. The characters are two-dimensional caricatures, and their endless swearing rapidly becomes a stupefying bore. The second half has one droll surprise up its sleeve, and the fall-out is disturbingly grim. Too often, though, Exton’s satire feels supercilious or sub-Ortonesque, morally didactic or itself distasteful. Steer clear.
 
Kate Bassett has been a theatre critic for The Times of London, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday. She also writes for theartsdesk.com.

 

 


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