Barking in Essex: a hit with hen-night hysterics

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

Barking in Essex

Wyndham’s, until 4 January 2014

The Herd

Bush, until 26 October

How appropriate. Barking in Essex, a farce about gangsters, has been dishonestly billed as ‘a new comedy’. The script was written in 2005 by Clive Exton (1930–2007), who pre-dates Woody Allen by half a decade. The storyline — thieves quarrel over stolen loot — is a trusty antique featured in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ and in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

The plot moves fast. We open in a monstrously tacky mansion where a criminal matriarch, Emmie Packer, is in a flap. She’s just informed her son Darnley, and his wife, Chrissie, that she’s blown three million quid from a bank heist and the robber is on his way to claim the loot. Run for it! A pretty young lawyer, Allegra, arrives. Emmie concludes that she’s a grass and must die. She calls a hitman from across the road, and he agrees to bump Allegra off, no questions asked, 50 quid. The slaughter is amusingly botched and the survivors, plus hitman, escape abroad where they divide into two factions. Each conspires to betray the other. Murders follow. Little of this is credible and little of it is meant to be. (Fifty quid to kill a lawyer? Not even in Mogadishu.)

The Packers are unbelievably dim and their combined IQ hovers at around earth-worm level. They mispronounce ‘Allegra’ as ‘Algeria’, and they appear unaware that ‘Rio’ identifies a city. Yet they discuss Shakespeare at length. Chrissie, who has university qualifications, quotes a line or two of Hamlet, which prompts Emmie to offer this critical re-evaluation of the Bard’s achievement. ‘I hate Shakespeare: all that “thee and thou”, the cunt.’ The X-rated language, flowing from the venerable lips of Emmie, is a source of humour that the script relies on far too much. But if you lower your expectations, then lower them a bit more, this show has something to offer.

Director Harry Burton renders a solid account of Exton’s fantasy script. Sheila Hancock pings elegantly around the stage as the wisecracking moll, Emmie, whose moral compass is all awry. Lee Evans, as Darnley Packer, does more than play the pratfalling halfwit; he finds some sweetnesss and pathos in there too. In the second act, Darnley takes a low-paid job as a cabaret dancer, which requires him to practise in private. Evans, being a world-class mime, could easily turn this into a virtuoso display of slapstick choreography that would bring the show to a halt. Instead he performs an understated and amusing little dance. He’s being true to Darnley’s character: not a gifted clown but a penniless amateur practising from necessity. Deft touches like this convince me that the production has more integrity and heart than the sketchy script would suggest. Had Exton lived, he might have corrected some of the wilder absurdities that undermine the play’s authenticity. A few critics have dismissed this as coarse, trivial, underclass bilge. And behind their contempt lies the question, ‘Who let the tramp into the ballroom?’ Well, here it is. Like it or not. And on the night I went, the great county of Essex had disgorged several coachloads of hen-night hysterics who cackled into their spritzers every time Sheila Hancock said ‘cunt’, and who rose for a standing ovation at the end. Can’t argue with that.

The Herd, by actor Rory Kinnear, is a baffling first play about family meltdown. There’s a stroppy teen, a crippled infant, a runaway dad, and a hag-bag of a mum struggling to cope. But the action begins two decades later. The crippled boy is 21 and the prodigal dad wants to make amends. Yet everyone is still trapped in their past and the stroppy characters spend great chunks of time exchanging mirthless obscenities at hovercraft volume. This is about as enjoyable as fell-running in barbed-wire flip-flops.

However, Kinnear also writes sparky, tender-hearted dialogue crammed with wit and fun. But he restricts these rich creative treats to the elders of the family. Kenneth Cranham wheezes and grumbles charmingly as an overfed granddad who can barely shift from his armchair. (But at the curtain call, Cranham leapt up like an athlete being offered a new masking agent.) His character is an am-dram enthusiast whose latest project is Love’s Labour’s Lost. ‘It’s boring but the biscuits are nice.’ Anna Calder-Marshall is delightful as a raspy-voiced cheeky-eyed grandmother with a gift for aphorism. ‘Brighton,’ she drawls, ‘where ambition goes to die.’ Calder-Marshall doesn’t just steal the show, she pawns it and banks the proceeds. Good news: this strange, lopsided soap is thriving at the box office. (Sold out on a Monday.) Kinnear, for his next effort, should soften the anger and turn up the brightness. Then he’ll have a hit.

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