With the West End full as it is of excellent ‘stuff’ – Chimerica, Curious Incident, One Man Two Guvnors – you have to question why a sane theatregoer would squander the same amount of cash on Barking In Essex, a heavily television-referenced comedy by the late Clive Exton, writer of Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster and that exemplar of all things smug and plantiful, Rosemary and Thyme.
It’s a ‘modern comedy’ about an EastEnders crime family – well, not so modern since it was penned about 10 years ago and already looks whiskery – with a side order of incestuous sex, and so copiously and relentlessly f- and c- loaded it could have been voiced by Malcolm Tucker. But only if his balls were caught in a repeatedly-closing pair of lift doors for two and a half hours. Yet underneath the fake tan and even faker writing lie two strong personal performances.
The first is Sheila Hancock as the Butlins’ Glamorous Grandmother and part-time gangland matriarch Violet Kray might have become if she’d had a personal stylist and a makeover for LK Today; in the second, Lee Evans channels his usual Norman Wisdom as her deluded ignoramus son who can’t even get past £100 on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, so wounds Chris Tarrant live on television for making fun of him. The audience whooped receptively at this both as a plot point and a serving suggestion.
Evans was winningly excellent in The Producers, and Hancock has a string of stage and screen credentials stretching back to the days of black and white television, so why either of them attached their name to this piece is somewhat inexplicable. The production is certainly not under-budgeted: the two-tier leopard and zebra print set by Simon Higlett is a fantasy beyond the dreams of Chigwell’s Birds of a Feather, the first act costumes are glamorous and particularly suit Keeley Hawes's enthusiastic performance of chavvy chic in a pair of crystal-encrusted bootees that are as vulgarly gorgeous as they are likely to be available in time for the pantomime season.
The plot, such as it is, involves everyone double-crossing everyone else in an attempt to conceal the loss of £3 million from the unseen and violent character who first stole it. At the conclusion [spoiler], Evans’s tragic hero stands alone with his entire family slaughtered.
It’s Hamlet. Done by the cast of TOWIE.
Barking in Essex continues at Wyndham's Theatre theoretically until 4 January 2014. Tickets £22.50-£52.50, though also available from many discounted sources. Londonist saw Barking in Essex on review tickets from Amanda Malpass PR.