Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Theatre review: Barking in Essex

How funny is the idea of Sheila Hancock saying "cunt?" Barking in Essex is confident that it will stay funny for a little over two hours. Spoiler alert: It doesn't. It's not often a new play opens directly in the West End, and this one is new in the sense of "new to the stage" as opposed to "newly written" - unless Clive Exton was such a workaholic that his death six years ago didn't slow him down. An opening scene that revolves around jokes about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and the long-since cancelled Weakest Link is a reminder that there wasn't a huge rush to bring this one to the stage. Was it a lost gem just waiting for the right cast to become available? Or was it gathering dust until the popularity of The Only Way Is Essex made producers sniff cash in anything with the county's name in the title? Well, I haven't exactly been subtle in my introduction, clearly it's going to be the latter.

Emmy Packer (Hancock) is the matriarch of an Essex crime family who lives in a big gaudy house with her son Darnley (Lee Evans) and his wife Chrissie (Keeley Hawes.) Her younger son Algie is due to be released from prison, and the two women have to confess to Darnley that his brother might not be too happy: They've managed to spend the £3 million he stole, meaning his seven years in prison were for nothing. The plot, if you want to call it that, is complicated by the arrival of Allegra (Montserrat Lombard,) the lawyer Algie's now engaged to, there to ensure her fiancé's cash will be there for him when he returns.

Karl Johnson as decrepit hit-man Rocco completes a cast who are way too good for the material, but still nowhere near good enough to save it. A couple of lines managed to raise a chuckle from me - "You've been blessed with the language of Shakespeare, you cunt!" is the best iteration of the play's joke - but for the other 2 hours 14 minutes and 30 seconds I failed to see what anyone was laughing at (the audience seemed split about 50/50 between non-stop guffaws and stony silence.)

Given the author's unavailability for rewrites, surely the polite way to describe Exton's play would be "unfinished" rather than "new." The signs are everywhere, from the limp endings to both acts, to two sequences that may as well have said "insert comic setpiece here" in the script: First, while Emmy is supposedly in a hurry to run away before her psychotic son finds out she stole his money, she somehow deems this the right time to stop everything and tell Darnley the story of how his wife is actually his sister. The second act's action is similarly clumsily halted for a piece of physical comedy this time, as Evans rehearses a Carmen Miranda routine. In fact throughout there's moments when it seems like director Harry Burton has just asked Evans to go into his rubber-faced, rubber-limbed standup routine to try and salvage the affair.

It's not enough, of course. The play simply isn't good enough to justify a week's am-dram run above a pub, let alone a star cast in the West End. It's a situation comedy that assumes the situation is funny enough in itself to make an evening's entertainment. It's just about funny enough to get a laugh out of Simon Higlett's leopard-print set when it's first unveiled; from then on it leaves its stars floundering.

Barking in Essex by Clive Exton is booking until the 4th of January at Wyndhams Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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