Wednesday 18 September 2013

Barking In Essex

Wyndham's Theatre, London


Written by Clive Exton
Directed by Harry Burton

(l-r) Sheila Hancock, Lee Evans and Keeley Hawes

Barking In Essex is a new comedy to arrive in the West End. A classily cast show but nonetheless very much a tale of two halves. The play opens in a garishly tacky lounge somewhere in perma-tan Essex, where clearly no expense has been spared on a huge flat screen TV, a juke box and where chintzy posters of Brooklyn Bridge (complete with naff neon mini lights) and Pulp Fiction, adorn the walls. Rarely has a designer been so deliciously tasteless as Simon Higlett, in this perfectly contexted setting. The release of murderous villain Algie from jail is fearfully awaited by his family (don't worry, he never shows up and lest you think that is a spoiler, the programme and publicity, rather spoilingly, do not list Algie as a cast member.) The key to the plot is that whilst Algie's been locked up his family have spent all his swag and they know that his revenge will be ruthless.

Sheila Hancock is a marvellous ageing matriarch, whose withering put downs and occasional brilliantly timed dottiness are the mark of a true professional. This actress is long overdue a Dame-hood, but based on this show and its inconsistent material, she may yet have to wait a little longer. Lee Evans is her son and Keeley Hawes his wife. The play’s dialog is frequently foul mouthed and those who are easily offended should stay away. Littered with profanity indeed, but snobs beware, as for many years the language of the barrack room has gradually worked it's way into our common parlance, be it on the football terraces or in the reality TV shows that wallpaper our lives. People swear and as this blog has commented before, if mined responsibly both the f- and the c-word can yield rich seams of comedy. Well in Act One they do, with dialog that supports Evans' madcap antics in a tale that bears more than a nod to the genius of an Ealing Comedy complete with macguffin, laced with comeddia dell'arte and all brought bang up to date.

Act Two is more confused, with a strangely Latin-styled location and a story that whilst having been delightfully tenuous in the first half, crumbles away to a ridiculous ending. The only bit of humour post-interval is from Evans' physicality of performance though Karl Johnson puts in a craftily created performance as a doddering hitman and as a character who swears considerably less than his fellow performers, Exton has actually given this supporting role some of the show's funniest lines.

Lee Evans' fans will not be disappointed. His maladroit rubber faced presence is a gift to comedy writers, who when they sense their script may be tissue-paper thin, know that Evans' quirky gift will still salvage a laugh from the moment.

The first half of this show is an inspired work of funny fantasy, the second half is tedious. Exton's profanity dictates that this has to be a show for adults, so have a stiff drink before the show or even better, make it a large one in the interval. When you then find yourself watching Barking In Essex through beer goggles, you'll think its brilliant!

To book tickets for Barking In Essex, click here

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