Directed by Dominic Cooke
Pros: A part of the country that few playwrights choose to write about and a well-executed artistic vision.
Cons: Not very inspired writing, a couple of badly placed, almost caricature-like secondary characters and a rather dull and unnecessary ending, difficult to engage with the main characters.
Our Verdict: Probably not worth your money considering what else you could be watching, but if serious drama really is your thing, then you may want to try it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In 2006 David Eldridge brought Romford market to the National Theatre stage with Market Boy; a well-received, ambitious production exploring the effects of boom and bust in 1980s Essex. His latest theatrical tribute to this much-stereotyped part of the UK is less inspired however, and actually quite dull. In Basildon is about family dynamics and the problems that inheritance can cause. It is also supposed to challenge our narrow perception of Essex households; sadly, this is where I think this play has failed the most.
However, in the spirit with which I began the evening, I’ll cover the good points first. Performance highlights for me included Peter Wight, whose character Ken injected some much needed energy into the show. I also thought the tension between the two sisters, played by Linda Basset and Ruth Sheen, was palpable and well-constructed.
The directorial credit for this production belongs to the Royal Court’s own artistic director, Dominic Cooke, and visually the production is polished and well thought out (I do like a good bit of wallpaper on stage!). I was excited to see that it is staged in traverse; the theatre’s lack of width prevents it from being completely in the round, but the desired effect of proximity to the characters, as opposed to watching them from the distance that end-on seating dictates, is still achieved.
This is the crux of Eldridge and Cooke’s endeavour; to force the audience to take a closer look at these typical Essex characters and stop thinking of them in a one dimensional way. The staging does this, but in my opinion the script doesn’t really achieve all it sets out to in the way of breaking stereotypes. The writing is good in places and there are some genuinely great moments where grief is met with comedy, but in two and a half hours they come few and far between.
The social commentary felt stinted and at times contrived, and if us Londoners were supposed to see something of ourselves in the liberal-guilt ridden Tom then I feel that didn’t come off either. In reality, he seemed like an out-of-place caricature that didn’t suit the serious or the comedic elements of the production. Then there was the absurdly strange vicar. Clearly put in for comic relief, he did get some cheap laughs, but for me the redeeming factor was that he wasn’t on stage for very long.
By far my biggest worry with this play is the last scene. Drawn out, and unnecessary; I just didn’t understand why we needed to see it. It was meant to fill in the blanks for us, but all that we needed to know we had already guessed from the previous couple of hours.
It isn’t often that I come out of a play feeling as indifferent as I did coming out of this, which for me is the greatest shame of all. I actually want to like a play about Essex, I want to celebrate the parts of this country that don’t usually get a mention in the ‘middle class theatre scene’ (Sloane Square is in the richest borough in England after all). So it’s with a heavy heart that I say I couldn’t enjoy this play and therefore wouldn’t recommend it.
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In Basildon runs at the Royal Court until 24th March 2012.
Box Office: 020 7565 5000 or book online at http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/in-basildon