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In Basildon by David Eldridge at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

In Basildon - Photo credit Mark Sepple.
In Basildon – Photo credit Mark Sepple.

Every so often, a joke about the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch being ‘a few stops beyond Barking’ (that is, on the eastbound District line coming up from central London) does the rounds. And then a play like In Basildon comes along, where most of the characters are working class – grafters, if you will. Never mind The Only Way is Essex, the reality television series which, while popular, has also courted criticism from some Essex locals – although the cast members are indeed from Essex, they (or rather, versions of them as presented on television) are always and forever imbibing, dressing in the latest designer clothes and shooting off on holiday.

Len (Peter Temple) has never been abroad, and even the token posh boy, Tom (Peter Bray) is rather ashamed of his private school education, because he prefers the relative rough and readiness of the ‘real’ world where most people are rather than the airs and graces of the privileged few. It takes a little while to work out the specific relations between some of the characters – Pam “from next door” (Connie Walker) is easy enough to work out. Doreen (Beverley Klein) and Maureen (Lucy Benjamin) are sisters of Len, and their now grown-up children are Barry (David Hemsted) and Shelley (Charlotte Law). Shelley is dating Tom; both are teachers. Ken (Patrick Driver) is best friends with Len – they met through work. And then there’s the Rev David Williams (also Peter Temple) whose services are required because there has been a death in the family and a funeral service to prepare for.

All of the action in all four acts is set in one room, though the staging puts the front room in Basildon (geddit?) in an oddly-shaped container that feels very much like one of those touring productions where the set doesn’t fill the available stage space, because there are other venues on the tour that are much tighter, space-wise. Particularly from the front rows, the set is unusually high. As per the stage directions, the furniture stays the same throughout, even though the script spans an eighteen-year period.

There are different viewpoints posited in what are sometimes genial and sometimes confrontational conversations. Tom wishes, for instance, that the cultural life of Basildon were rather different than it is, but Pam, a lifelong Essex resident, is happy with things as they are, at least in terms of ‘culture’ – after her work shifts, she’d like nothing better than to have some downtime in front of the television – “put me feet up and chill out”. While all young Barry seems to do is threaten Tom with physical violence, it’s Ken that explains things clearly in a systematic demolition of Tom’s political outlook.

This is not to say that David Eldridge’s play approves one political zeitgeist over another (I don’t think it does). It’s one of those plays where there’s a genuine interest amongst the audience for what happens in the next act, though I am still undecided as to whether this is because or in spite of the frostiness that has existed between Doreen and Maureen since the Conservative Party under John Major won the 1992 General Election (the script is quite specific on that point). The play’s structure means that the question about how on earth these two sisters who used to be close ended up on non-speaking terms in perpetuity isn’t answered until the very closing moments, though there is a part of me that wonders if that final scene was strictly necessary.

There are no weak links in the cast to report in a production that is best summed up by considering the two faces of theatre: the balance between comedy and tragedy is palpable, perhaps at its most acute when ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ was sung as a tribute to a departed West Ham United fan. A spirited and fascinating production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Len is a die-hard West Ham supporter who proudly made a career at Ford Dagenham. Now he’s on his deathbed with the nearest and dearest gathered to say goodbye.

His sisters, slogging away on the checkouts at Asda Romford and Tesco Basildon, haven’t spoken in 20 years.

Over a ham sandwich spread, the banter soon flows and old animosities emerge as it’s time to read the will…

A sharply funny play, charting an East End family’s history from the homelands of Hackney, via Romford, to Basildon and beyond.

Cast
Lucy Benjamin – Maureen
Peter Bray – Tom
Patrick Driver – Ken
David Hemsted – Barry
Emily Houghton – Jackie
Beverley Klein – Doreen
Charlotte Law – Shelley
Peter Temple – Len/Reverend David
Connie Walker – Pam

In Basildon by David Eldridge
Director – Douglas Rintoul
Designer – Natasha Jenkins
Lighting Designer – Alexandra Stafford
Fight Director – Bethan Clark
Casting Director – Matthew Dewsbury
Casting Assistant – Tom Hurley

14 – 30 March 2019
https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk

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