In Basildon

Theatre, West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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For most of us these days, dying is a medicated shut-down of an ageing body, whose physical agony is mercifully palliated but whose spiritual finality is stark and unsoftened by religious consolation. Small wonder that writers approach the contemporary hospital deathbed in a vein that's as grimly ironic as the tube that takes the piss out of you when you can no long get up to go to the bathroom.

'In Basildon' opens at one such close. In an Essex home, estranged middle-aged sisters Doreen and Maureen are slagging each other off over the limp human centrepiece of their brother Len, who lies wired-up on a temporary bed, already detached from the spectacular obnoxiousness which his death and more importantly his will have brought into his sitting room.

Staged in-the-round by Dominic Cooke, it's a terrific scene: intimate, flawlessly acted, and horribly funny. But Eldridge, whose Romford background served him pungently and well in 2006 NT hit 'Market Boy', isn't content to tell the story of one family: 'In Basildon' is an ambitious, ambivalent attempt to capture white working-class Essex, in all its mouthy, embattled glory.

Two laureates of East End-facing working class naturalism, Arnold Wesker and Mike Leigh, tussle for the soul of Eldridge's richly estuarine new drama. Personally, I wish Leigh had won more rounds. 'Abigail's Party' hovers over the darkly plausible first and final acts, and Leigh's play even gets a nod from Len's friend Ken, Eldridge's fullest and most admirable character (played with ease, authority and a ribald sense of fun by the excellent Peter Wight).

But the middle acts are weakened by the Wesker-like introduction of Len's niece's writer-boyfriend, Tom (brilliantly played by Max Bennett). One vital confrontation – Tom's row with Thatcherite pensioner Ken – would hit closer to home if they were father and son. Instead, Tom is a posh socialist interloper who turns Len's wake into an awkwardly dialogued collective history essay by asking questions like: 'What happened when an old Anglo-Saxon country was faced with mass-migration out of the East End of London?'

Tom's broadsides against the 'middle-class' theatre audience are hilarious. But – drunk, idealistic, and educated – he is too much like us. He comes between us and Eldridge's 'I'm authentic Basildon' characters. And, when the funeral spread veers briefly into an impromptu focus group on why Ken, Maureen, Doreen, Doreen's luckless son Barry and his horny checkout-worker wife Jackie don't vote Labour, we risk scrutinising the 'Bas-Vegas'-dwellers like specimens, instead of feeling for them as humans, as we do in the play's extraordinary opening scene.

Cooke's production and Eldridge's play are brilliant as well as uneven. Ruth Sheen and Linda Bassett are gorgeously lugubrious as Len's sour-gobbed sisters. And, although the director allows Christian Dixon to go way off-palette as a silly-billy vicar, the cast make the most of Eldridge's fantastically marshy dialogue, much of which should be written down and reserved for future deployment: neighbour being an Alka-Seltzer in the arse? Tell her to shit in her hat and punch it. That's what they'd do 'In Basildon'…

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