Monday, 5 March 2012

Theatre review: In Basildon

You couldn't accuse David Eldridge of shying away from the darker side of life. After last year's children's-TV-presenter-gets-heroin-habit fun and games at the Almeida, he returns to the Royal Court and a reconfigured Downstairs theatre where Len (Phil Cornwell) is on his deathbed with prostate cancer, in his living room In Basildon. The scene is set for a dysfunctional family reunion as Len's sister Doreen (Linda Bassett) has been living in his house for decades, but she's not spoken to younger sister Maureen (Ruth Sheen) for the last 20 years. Though the details are sketchy at first, it's clear money and ownership of the house are at the root of the family feud. Doreen's son Barry (Lee Ross) and Maureen's daughter Shelley (Jade Williams, briefly allowed out of the Globe and not even required to vomit on anyone) try their best not to let the hard feelings carry on to their generation. Once Len is dead, things don't get any easier as it turns out he's recently changed his will, and the new arrangements could leave everyone in very different circumstances than they expected.

At its heart In Basildon is a classic family drama, although as the title suggests it does take in certain features associated with Essex, a right-wing mindset that still worships Thatcher and sees the world in terms of property and aspiration. Overall Eldridge continues to have a pretty bleak outlook - the stream of hatred that the sisters spit at each other, always calling each other "darling," is well-observed - but this time there are at least plenty of comic moments to lighten the tension: Debbie Chazen as Barry's desperate-to-conceive wife Jackie brings some light relief after the death scene itself, and Peter Wight as Len's best friend ramps up the tension of reading out the will, only to get distracted by the buffet; though Christian Dixon's drunken vicar is a bit too broad a touch. Bassett mainly shows her dramatic chops but gets comic moments as well, like demonstrating how much venom one person can put into wiping her lips with a napkin. Ian was saying at the interval that Wendy Nottingham as neighbour Pam had a bit of a thankless part, but at the top of the second act she has some scene-stealing moments as she flirts with Shelley's posh-totty boyfriend Tom (Max Bennett.)  Though when the latter then launches into a speech about wanting to write plays about people like these, I found it a rather self-indulgently arch addition to the script.

Ian MacNeil's set sees the Jerwood Downstairs reconfigured into traverse in a similar way to 2010's Sucker Punch. I'm not sure it adds a huge amount, and it sounds as if the people sitting at the ends of rows had a fairly obstructed view; also if you're sitting on the side we were, throughout his death scene Len is played by the back of Phil Cornwell's head. Other than that though Dominic Cooke's production is pretty solid, and though hardly life-affirming the play does have a lot to offer.

In Basildon by David Eldridge is booking until the 5th of April at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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