“I am authentic Basildon, I am”, is the phrase with which we are welcomed to the regional premiere of In Basildon, the hit show by David Eldridge, that opened to critical acclaim at the Royal Court in 2012. Although the atmosphere of having this show performed to a local audience was electric, this production leaves a lot to be desired, outside occasional flashes of brilliance.
The Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch is an impressive size, but Director Douglas Rintoul has made the rather confusing choice to have a small raised television-style square where the action takes place. I understand that the idea of watching a family squabble after the death of a loved one is Coronation Street-esque, but this device creates unnecessary distance for the audience, as well as acoustic difficulties with unmic-ed actors. Along with ludicrously long set changes which only seem to clear away a couple of bottles and move a few chairs, the mechanics of the show need tightening up before it has real clout with an audience.
The play is undeniably well written, and many of the actors understand the long awkward pauses and complex turns of phrase. These easily fall into camp Dynasty-like melodrama if not given the correct emotional connection and acting ability. Sadly, this production is let down by its casting, with most of the actors not quite connecting with the writing. That pulls the whole production down, and diminishes what could have been an arresting snapshot of Essex life.
As the play itself notes, it is so important to have working class plays about working-class lives, and Eldridge’s writing reminds me of an English August Osage County by Tracy Letts. The discussion of class, family, honour and money buzzes with quintessential British humour, politics and vigour. This play is a testament not only to the history of Essex, but the grassroots culture that is so often misunderstood and parodied. The pride in Essex comes through so strongly even in this production and that is admirable.
Likewise, there are actors that shine through the fog. Lucy Benjamin playing Maureen, the better half of the two bickering sisters grieving the loss of their beloved brother. Patrick Driver, as the dead brother’s best mate, keeping the group scenes flowing and understanding the pace and humour of the writing. Peter Temple, playing the dead brother in flashbacks, and multi-roling so seamlessly that I only realised he was also the hilariously drunk priest when I checked the programme. Last and certainly not least Connie Walker, playing the obsessive and slightly insane neighbour, with fire, brightness and pain. These actors inhabit the style and breath life and humanity into the words. Peter Bray also plays the token posh boy very well and pretty much sums up the play’s raison d’être in a monologue at the beginning of Act Two. Talking about his dreams of providing art for the people of Basildon, yet simultaneously not understanding anything of their lives.
This play, on the other hand, does provide a hard hitting and fair depiction of the working class of Essex. Staging it so close to Basildon, the references and places mentioned produced wry laughs and murmers from the audience, which must be music to the ears of Essex-born Eldridge. Nevertheless, with confusing directorial decisions and some poor casting, this show doesn’t have the all the components to land the emotional punches needed, instead falling into melodrama, slapstick and confusion.
Author: David Eldridge
Director: Douglas Rintoul
Producer: Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
Box office: 01708 443333
Booking link: Booking until: 30 March 2019