Barking In Essex

Reviewer's rating

Admit it – fan or not of TOWIE, even if you’re actually from Essex, you know you’ve had a smug snigger at that accent and those sort of people. And that taboo c-word appears enough in Clive Exton’s new play – although I’m not talking about the one at the centre of the ‘Demonization of the Working Class’ debate.

The author of classic English country garden-type comedies including Rosemary & Thyme and ITV’s Jeeves & Wooster has turned his hand to a more modern theme.

The Packer family are introduced to us in their Barking house, a tacky monstrosity more than worthy of Buckingham Palace. The son of the family, Algy, is due to come out of prison – and his devoted mother and sister-in-law is worried. Between them and his hapless brother Darnley (Lee Evans), they have managed to spend all the money Algy had stashed through various criminal activities to await him on his return. Darnley’s scheme to win back the money on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire has backfired (naturally it has, as Darnley is predictably lacking in the brain cell department). They rustle up local hit man Rocco (Karl Johnson) to dispose of Algy’s posh girl fiancée when she turns up – but he manages to shoot himself in the process of consigning Allegra (Montserrat Lombard) to the concrete pit. They flee from their brother to the depths of Luton, but the die is already cast – die. Literally. They all do.

And that really is it.

There’s little point to the plot and little focus. There are criminals, but if you wanted any of the complexity that you’d find in a story like that of the film Four Lions (if you haven’t seen it, you must) – any of that darting between the lines of cold-blooded killers and tragically ridiculous losers – then forget it. This is just banana-skin-sliding slapstick. Most of the wittier lines – such as Darnley’s regular malapropisms – just become annoying by the second half. So too does the constant swearing. And why, while we’re at it, did Darnley and his wife Chrissie (Keeley Hawes) have to turn out to be brother and sister? It lent nothing to the plot. In fact, nothing lent much to a plot of any kind.

And yet, this is a genuinely funny show – thanks to one or two actors in particular who make it their own. Sheila Hancock – ah, Sheila Hancock. That woman can do no wrong, can she? She was the first female artistic director of the RSC, the first woman to direct at the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, played Mrs Lovett in the first ever London production of Sweeney Todd… and in hideous neon pink dressing gown, pyjamas and trainers, she is superb as matriarchal Emmie Packer. Never have I heard the word ‘cunt’ spoken with such juicy relish – whether as a profanity or otherwise.

And then there’s Lee Evans, who reminded me from the start of one of those Hanna Barbera cartoons that, having been smacked in the face with a mallet, get surrounded by tweeting birds and squiggly lines. His goofy voice and gangly yet perfectly timed acrobatics (watch out for the slow-motion walk, and his ‘Spanish dance routine’ in the second half) made him adorably pathetic.

Keeley Hawes complimented both of them as a no-nonsense, stroppy Chrissie in towering heels and mini-dress – although there wasn’t much of a lead-up to the revelation that she was cheating on Darnley. And while Karl Johnson and Montserrat Lombard didn’t quite manage to breathe life into their fairly insubstantial roles in the same way Hancock and Evans did, they gave amusing enough performances.

The stage is a delight, adorned with tat from a golden spiral staircase to a lava lamp-style column of bubbles and a flashing jukebox in the corner. The costumes too were wonderfully – oh, come on, I’ve got to say it – chavvy.

As far as mindless amusement on a miserable winter’s evening is concerned, you could do far worse than book Barking In Dagenham. I hear there’s a ticket offer that comes with a glass of fizz thrown in. Or buy a bottle of perry or some pink cava for the interval and book your table at Garfunkel’s afterwards. Mint.