In Basildon, Royal Court, London


David Eldridge's In Basildon is a gloriously rich, humorous, agonising and politically provocative play, but it has been staged by the Royal Court's artistic director, Dominic Cooke, in a bafflingly peculiar, not to say, counterproductive way.

Eldridge's admirable aim is to give a platform to the white working classes of his native Essex who, in committing the sin of tending towards the right wing in their sympathies, are denied a hearing by the lumpenly liberal theatrical establishment.  As a proletarian kid who won a scholarship to a posh fee-paying school, Eldridge is in a prime position to tackle this material from the double perspective of comic detachment and raw, painful ambivalence.

The play is set in November 2010, in the large living room of a semi-detached house in Basildon.  On a centrally placed bed is sixty-year-old Len, who is sinking, unconscious, into death, circled by his warring family; the bit on the side from next door, and (a wonderful comic creation, beautifully played by Peter Wight) his bumptious best friend Ken who fancies himself as a fancy man and competitively trumps Len's nearest and dearest by having all the latest gen on the soon-to-be-late Len's last wishes. These range from the request that "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" be sung over the corpse of this die-hard West Ham supporter to news of a will that was changed at the eleventh hour and is to be read out by Ken at the wake.  A lot hangs on this for those family members who have great-ish expectations over the disposition of the house.  They include Maureen (excellent Ruth Sheen) and Doreen (the incomparable Linda Bassett), the sisters who became murderously estranged from one another as result of how Len (mis?)-used the house when he was alive, as we discover properly in the aching final scene that jumps back to 1992.  The expected bequest might also ease the problems of Len's troubled nephew, Barry, a reformed wild card, compellingly played by Lee Ross, and his large, loudmouth spouse Jackie (Debbie Chazen) who puts their inability to conceive down to residence-related "stress".

Eldridge has a wonderful ear for dialogue that typifies the quirks and quiddiities of this tribe -- as, for example, when Pam from next door (lovely Wendy Nottingham), who is preparing the "spread", announces that "The kettle's boiled and the glasses are on the nice tray" and he has an Ibsen-like gift for bringing to the surface the intricate emotional under-webbing of the past.  But in placing the audience on two sides of the action (as in the recent boxing drama Sucker Punch) the production makes the characters look, from the circle, like specimens under a microscope.  And Ken, who rightly gives Labour a large share of the blame for the current crisis, is able to score points too easily off the condescending self-deception off the young Oxbridge banker's son (Max Bennett) who is too much this play's crude fall-guy in his mission to represent the masses.  Otherwise, very warmly recommended.

To March 24

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