The Carnivore Reviews: In Basildon
The Royal Court downstairs has become an in-the-round theatre for David Eldridge’s In Basildon, with the audience on two levels looking in, almost like a nineteenth century operating theatre. Even before the play begins Len is lying in a hospital bed in the centre of his living room, close to death, and we are going to watch him die.
This has brought his family and close friends together and so conversation out of grief and waiting ensues, complete with flippant death jokes, some inappropriate flirting and a brief history of Essex given by ‘authentic Basildon’ Ken, friend of Len.
Eldridge gets the intensity of emotion spot on in the opening act. These people are hurting, they are able to say things, sometimes terrible things which are festering beneath the grief. But then they are able to gather around and sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, as Len requested. There is real truth in Eldridge’s writing of the process of Len’s death in the actions of those at his death bed, the care and attention they pay to him and the fear of what comes next.
In some ways it’s disappointing that the root of the problem for this Essex family must be exposed: the problem is that Len’s sisters Maureen and Doreen haven’t spoken for about twenty years and their quarrel has seeped into everyday life. This conflict is carrying on before our eyes and the contentious subject is caught up in Len’s will, which will inevitably be shared at the wake– a fine set-up before the interval. The final act leaps back eighteen years to explain everything, but by this time the play has rather lost its momentum, as we have been assured that nothing will change.
Eldridge brings out much of the humour in the characters outside of the family, like Christian Dixon’s tipsy Reverend, come to arrange the funeral – a bit silly really, but very funny in the way they react to him and his behaviour. Debbie Chazen’s Jackie relishes speaking her mind, proudly asserting what she knows and what she wants, much to the embarrassment of her husband and the exasperation of everyone else. Then there’s the boyfriend, played by Max Bennett, an aspiring playwright and self-estranged son of an investment banker, who just doesn’t get these ideals of this working class family and wants real culture for everyone. At the wake, grief and/or alcohol make the words pour out and the talk turns political. Is Tom there to represent us, as we are reminded in no uncertain terms what rightwing Essex thinks about Labour? If the elephant is the house itself, then Tom is the theatrical device in the room.
Using strong, natural dialogue and fine characterisation Eldridge has successfully presented a portrait of a family stuck fast in their own selfish, destructible ways. The play is precisely acted throughout. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen are well matched as the feuding sisters, spitting their poison across the room and into the post-funeral spread.
The audience may have been put on either side of the stage by Dominic Cooke, but it seemed like the action was mostly directed out one way – luckily I had chosen the right side of the stage to sit. Some views were restricted, though if the stage had not been raised this would not have mattered so much. Despite this, having the audience make up two walls of the living room focuses the characters in their setting. The house is the root of the issue, and so it is fitting that the entire play takes place inside it, limiting its characters within the boundaries of their twenty year quarrel and using us to keep them there.
Until April 5 at The Royal Court Theatre
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