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A CurtainUp London London Review

In Basildon

Well if you havenít learned it by now Barry let me enlighten you. Thereís no new beginnings for families like ours. And there never has been. Things stay the same. — Maureen
In Basildon
The family gather to hear Ken read the letter
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
David Eldridgeís latest play is imbued with a sense of the East End, the people who moved out of cramped housing conditions in Hackney into the new town development of Basildon in Essex to the east of London taking with them hopes for a better life. Gathered round the Macmillan home nursing provided hospital bed in his sitting room are Lenís friend and family come to visit the dying man. His best friend Ken (Peter Wight) is there, best friends despite their soccer differences, Len (Phil Cornwell) being an ardent West Ham fan and Ken a Spurs supporter.

With In Basildon Eldridge returns to the same people he wrote about in Market Boy, with the same detailed observation but in a more serious vein. Although the play is very funny, its subject matter is darker. Eldridge develops the themes of concern to Londoners, housing and the lack of opportunity for couples looking to start a family and the loss of industry and the change in available employment with Ford of Dagenham, once a major employer in the area, shrinking in size until, in 2002, Ford ended car production in the UK.

As well as these economic factors, class and politics, central to the play there is the rivalry of the two sisters, Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and Doreen (Linda Bassett) who do not get on and compete for both Len and Kenís affection. Throw next door neighbour Pam (Wendy Nottingham) who had designs on Len into the mix and the women start to get sticky with each other.

The next generation is there: Lenís niece and nephew with their contrasting partners. Shelley (Jade Williams), the first in the family to go to university has moved back to the gentrifying ďvillageĒ of Walthamstow. She has in tow, Tom (Max Bennett), an embarrassing middle class liberal denying his rich father and public school education to write plays and patronisingly and naively identify with the working class and the Labour Party. Doreenís son Barry (Lee Ross) and his wife Jackie (Debbie Chazen) are stuck in a poverty trap unable to afford to start a family.

What is clever is the lightness of the writerís art in communicating these issues organically without the play becoming polemical. In Act Four the final scene goes back 18 years to the root of the sistersí disagreement with one another.

Ian MacNeilís set has all the detail of a suburban living room but the auditorium has been re-configured to allow seating on both sides of the square stage. This allows us to look down on the scene voyeuristically.

Dominic Cooke directs this production perfectly with clever timing and the casting is precise. Peter Wight is solid as best mate Ken, here the architect of Lenís final wishes. A mild flirtation with Maureen has Ken self consciously launching into the pretentious, French ďau contraireĒ as he feigns sophistication in a laugh out loud moment. Ken tells us he is Basildon born and bred not like Lenís family of incomers and delivers a song of praise to the Essex that is not The Only Way Is Essexís Ilford and Romford, hair and nail extensions and fake tans. There is an amusing interlude when the local vicar, Reverend David Williams (Christian Dixon) turns up to research the subject of the planned eulogy.

The ensemble cast are superb. Linda Bassett is brilliant as the rather downtrodden ďDorĒ who gets a plate of jellied eels thrown over her but that isnít the worst indignity sheíll suffer. There are finely observed moments, like when Ken comes in and we are expecting him to read Lenís letter but instead he tucks into the buffet and makes everyone wait anxiously. What is more satisfying than a well written dark comedy of human behaviour with underlying and enduring themes and a sense of place? Donít miss it!

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In Basildon
Written by David Eldridge
Directed by Dominic Cooke

Starring: Peter Wight, Linda Bassett, Phil Cornwell
With: Ruth Sheen, Lee Ross, Wendy Nottingham, Debbie Chazen, Jade Williams, Max Bennett, Christian Dixon, Tess Fontaine/Meg Reynolds
Designed by Ian MacNeil
Lighting: Guy Hoare
Sound: Paul Arditti
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 24th March 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd February 2012 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)

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