Barking in Essex
By Clive Exton
Wyndhams Theatre, London
Shelia Hancock at 80 is lithe, fit and glamorous like no other 80 year old has ever been and her exquisite comic timing is undimmed. Lee Evans is one of the most supremely gifted comic geniuses this country has produced and Keeley Hawes has talent to burn and the great shame is that they've ended up in this farrago. A creaky send up of the East End criminal diaspora in Essex, it resembles the worst kind of 1970s sitcom crossed with Quentin Tarantino.
Curtain goes up on the most gloriously vulgar nouveau riche mansion and in comes the orange-hued Chrissie (Hawes), a twisted Barbie, whose first words are "You c***". She and her mother in law Emmie (Hancock) have blown three million quid, the ill-gotten gains of her psycho brother in law Archie, who is just about to be released from prison. The other son
Writer Exton made a name for himself writing TV chillers in the '60 and doing the adaptations of screenplays such as 10 Rillington Place. Ten lost years followed in Hollywood (wonder why!) and he returned to the UK, settling into a lucrative career of adapting Woodhouse and Christie for the small screen. This play was written in 2005, two years before his death, and the mystery of why it has been put on now would flummox even Hercule Poirot himself.
If you are celebrating the linguistic bravado of this Essex subculture you should at least get your c***s right. Hancock gets the biggest laugh of the night for one, which is completely misplaced and illogical. The malapropisms and misunderstandings might raise a momentary titter but they're all essentially mean spirited.
Lacking the suppleness of farce or the warmth of a good sitcom Exton settles instead for cheap gags and clunky exposition. Each plot point is excruciatingly telegraphed and then laboured beyond endurance.
The laziness of this set up gets to the heart of its failure. Setting out, with a middle class sneer, to mock these uncouth nouveau riche (this criminal underclass with millions appear to draw welfare, like they would have the time to bother), he can't even get the details right of what their favoured entertainment might be. It certainly wouldn't be Carmen Miranda.
Simon Higlett's OTT set, which got a round of applause, is also just a crude caricature when, with a bit more effort, it could be a hymn to bling and exemplify what Grayson Perry so aptly called "the vanity of small differences".
It ends in a blood bath when it should have ended on the producer's in-tray.