Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: In Basildon, Royal Court

Review: In Basildon, Royal Court

In Basildon is brilliantly full. Were David Eldridge to try and squeeze one more socio-political point (no matter how waff-er thin) into his portrait of an Essex family, the play might very well explode all over the Royal Court auditorium, leaving its audience smattered with jellied eels. For two and a half hours, it jangles around the subjects of class and politics like a high-scoring round of pinball. Thatcherism – ding! New Labour – ding! Immigration, aspiration, culture, regeneration, welfare – ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

However, what makes Eldridge’s play so sturdy is that (one major lurch into outright debate aside) it places the human first and foremost. Eldridge has spoken of his decision to use the four-act form, passed down from Chekhov, to let his characters lead the drama, and it pays dividends, upping the tautness and empathy. The play becomes an ethnographic case study. Its social-political observations – that third-act open-floor debate excepted – come to the surface through action and character.

Two warring sisters, Maureen and Doreen, are reunited at the deathbed of their brother Len in the living-room of the family home, its single most valuable asset. Len’s promised it to Doreen’s son Barry, but had recently changed his will, entrusting best mate Ken to pass on his instructions after the funeral. The question on everyone’s mind – and obliterating any remaining family ties – is who stands to gain and who to lose.

Eldridge also brings in two middle-class characters: Maureen’s daughter Shelley, the first of the family to go to university, and her plumy boyfriend Tom, an aspiring playwright who talks patronisingly about making theatre about and for the working classes. Though Eldridge can employ these two heavy-handedly at times, they add another layer to the complex debates that swish through the play.

Essex is, of course, Eldridge’s county of birth and he achieves a vivid picture of its inhabitants and their values, some of which are condoned, others criticised.

Two things emerge most prominently. First, a difference of aspiration; unlike Tom and Shelley, who have the luxury of not needing to do so, most of the characters aspire only to increased financial security. Barry’s face – not to mention his wife’s – crumples on hearing the house will be sold and proceeds divided. Both Maureen and Doreen, with varying degrees of cunning and subtlty, attempt to forge a life sponging of Ken’s relative wealth. Second, you see the working-class pride – in its heritage, its humour and both self-sufficiency and graft – that refuses to be compromised by the definitions or help of others, particularly when that’s passed down from more privileged social strata. Of course, in the case of Len’s will, there’s a meaty contradiction here, which Eldridge explores fully.

Where the play becomes more overtly political, as a tipsy Tom argues against the family’s firm Conservative values to the point of dismissing them as ignorant, momentum slows and opposing points of view bounce back and forth. It is, nonetheless, a big old subject, argued with passion, acutity and humour. Len, we find out early on, was a man who wouldn’t have a world said against Magaret Thatcher. It’s no coincidence then, that when the fifth act skips back to the point where family tensions first spark, it takes us to the morning after John Major’s election. This is a slice-of-the-nation play and it accuses post-Thatcherite politics of abandoning the blue-collar classes. The widening gap between rich and poor looms into view and the impression is of a nation sacrificing its own populace to appeal to corporations and immigrants.

It gets a full-bodied production (in traverse) from Dominic Cooke and the performances – almost without exception (Jade William’s is too BBC audiobook as Shelley) – are exceptional. Linda Bassett keeps you guessing about Doreen’s true feelings throughout with a stone-set poker face, while Ruth Sheen’s Maureen wears a conniving smile to peers down on her relatives. Lee Ross is a complex and clear Barry – as genuine in grief as in self-interest – and Peter Wight, a jovial arbiter as Ken, and Max Bennett’s Tom is a mix of spite and naivety. Wendy Nottingham makes a delicious addition as next-door neighbour Pam, at one point awkwardly sidestepping out of the room like a dressage horse.

Photograph: Keith Pattison

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