“There’s no new beginnings for families like ours. And there never has been.”
One of David Eldridge’s most recent previous plays – The Knot of the Heart for the Almeida – proved to be one of the most divisive I’ve experienced in terms of the response from the critics who lauded it and so many of the bloggers and audience members of my acquaintance who really did not like it at all. So when the new season at the Royal Court was announced featuring a new play by him, I was OK with not booking it as it helped me with my ‘I will cut down on the amount of theatre I see’ mantra. But then they announced the cast and as soon as I saw the names Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen I knew that I would have to book for In Basildon. Bassett blew me away in the Arcola’s undersung The Road To Mecca and Sheen is an actress whose work I have recently revisited and adored in recent Mike Leigh films, and the Leigh connection is furthered with the presence of other regular collaborators Peter Wight and Wendy Nottingham. So I was a mixture of reluctance and eager anticipation as I schlepped off to Sloane Square to catch the final preview.
Dying from prostate cancer, salt-of-the-earth Len has returned to the home he inherited from his parents as friends and family gather round his sickbed. Sister Doreen and best friend Ken lead the group but the atmosphere is shaken by the return of estranged sister Maureen who hasn’t spoken to ‘Dor’ in nearly 20 years. As Len passes away, attention turns to his will as everyone seems to have a claim on something, including Pam from next door, Doreen’s son Barry and his wife, and Shelley, Maureen’s daughter and Eldridge explores the tensions that emerge from these family loyalties and how they change over time and across the generations. The complexities of sibling relationships are brutally exposed but also overlaid with a frank discussion about class and how it is intrinsically connected to location, their working-class politics shaped by hard-earned experience. Confrontational, conflicted and compelling, Eldridge’s writing speaks with the darkest of humour but also the ring of a deep emotional truth. It’s just a shame that the Royal Court have decided to play the ‘tricksy’ card with the staging.
Ian MacNeil’s design is an odd one, placing the living room in the centre of the Royal Court downstairs leaving the audience straddling the stage and thus Dominic Cooke’s direction has to constantly bear the traverse in mind. It adds nothing to the performance – the stage is still elevated so it is not as if we’re in the living room with them – and has a strange impact on key scenes. The play opens with Len on his deathbed, but the combination of the bedhead and his head being slightly raised means that only the people on the backstage side (like us) can see him (though he doesn’t do much, aside from splutter a little as he leaves this mortal coil); and then later on at the reading of the will, Ken plonks his chair down facing the usual theatre side and delivers the news exclusively to that side of the theatre. My heart sank when this happened – as a lip reader it made things much more difficult for me as there’s only so much Peter Wight can say with his back – but the plus side is that we got to see the faces of every other character as they responded to the news and this actually came close to making up for it: the eager anticipation of all, the glares between the sisters and the scorn directed by both at Ken, the look of triumph on Tom’s face as Pam gets her share – it just seems a shame that it has to be an either/or thing.
For quibbles about the staging aside, the acting is simply sensational from all angles. Sheen and Bassett crackle against each other, their enmity horribly palpable as they spit venom at each other; Lee Ross as the gorgeously appealing Barry is such a comforting presence on the stage even as he rails against a world that hasn’t quite worked out for him, especially with a strident Debbie Chazen as his wife, bolshily determined to push his mother out of the picture once they finally get pregnant; Jade Williams convinces as graduate teacher Shelley who is keen to forget her roots and I loved Max Bennett’s Tom, a middle-class sore thumb in this household whose drink-fuelled liberal guilt is hilariously played yet cleverly makes its point about the assumptions that are often made about the working classes and notions of popular culture, especially in Wendy Nottingham’s exquisitely detailed Pam.
Not everything worked about the show for me, it should be said. The introduction of a drunken vicar was a comic step too far (his pratfall far too clearly signposted with the unforgiving staging so it was no surprise to anyone on our side of the theatre) and somewhat unnecessary in the end; the final act that skips back in time to uncover the source of the long-held enmity explains perhaps a little too much than is strictly needed and Shelley as a character feels ripe for a little more involvement in matters, as the one who did manage to sever her ties to the area and is much more ambivalent about it than anyone else. But there’s so much to enjoy here, along with Sheen and Bassett, Peter Wight gives a stunning performance as the jovial Ken, there’s a lovely reminder of Walthamstow dog track and the inimitable Charlie Chan’s and the kind of investigation of the working classes that is so rarely makes it onto the bigger stages in London. And I also loved that I ultimately gave Eldridge the chance to change my mind – too often I hear people state definitively that they don’t like this type of theatre or that playwright, I’ve been guilty of it myself, but I always try to keep an open mind and in the past couple of weeks Filter and now Eldridge have confounded my expectations, so I heartily recommend In Basildon even if, perhaps especially if, you weren’t a fan of The Knot of the Heart.