Seven o’clock and the lights go up on the brilliantly tacky, zebra-striped living room of the Packer family in ‘Barking in Essex’ – a ‘new’ comedy by the late Clive Exton.
Whatever subtle hints Simon Higlett’s spectacular set possesses are quickly obliterated by the very first utterance of the play: ‘You cunt,’ yells Chrissie (Keeley Hawes), Exton’s idea of an Essex girl, orange of skin, fag in hand, addressing her husband Darnley (Lee Evans).
They have just returned from Darnley’s attempt at ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’, where he got the first question wrong, assaulted Chris Tarrant, was kicked in the 'goolies' by security and thrown out – all of which they recount to Emmie (Sheila Hancock) the matriarch of the criminal family.
The story unfolds to reveal that Emmie and Chrissie had squandered the three million pounds stashed away by Darnley’s violent younger brother Algie, soon to be released from prison. Fearing his wrath, the Packers must do something.
The plot is driven forwards by Allegra (Montserrat Lombard), the love of Algie’s life, who has come to collect his loot, with Algie himself as an off-stage antagonist. But it just isn't a good enough device to keep things interesting.
Most of the laugh-out-loud stuff comes from the liberal use of blue language. Though watching the legendary Sheila Hancock (who is the stand out performer) swear vociferously has its moments, it soon wears thin.
Evans’s Darnley is enjoyable but his commendable physical performance skills goes woefully underused, leaving the situational comedy aspect to carry us through. For that to work however we have to care for the characters, but they are stereotypes with no redeeming qualities, so again, the device fails.
To put it simply, the script is underdeveloped, several drafts away from being good. It was penned in 2005, two years before Exton passed, and one could argue that the humour is dated – it’s almost a decade old and should be seen through those lenses.
That said, the comedian Lee Nelson treads very similar paths of Essex stereotypes – inbreeding, crime and four-letter punchlines – and his meteoric rise suggests there's a big market for this sort of thing, so if you are a fan of his comedy you might enjoy this show. But should you prefer a plot, characters you care anything about and humour that is clever or at least... genuinely humorous, avoid, avoid, avoid, see ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ instead.
By Inua Ellams
Inua, 28, is a poet from south London. He was selected to write this review as part of the Time Out Takeover – a special edition of the magazine written entirely by readers.