Wyndham’s Theatre in London is home to a new comedy about a family, a family who would like to think they are Essex’s answer to The Sopranos, but the Packers are not quite that classy. The Packers have a brother returning from prison wanting his stashed away millions but – you guessed it – his family have spent it! Fearing the wrath of brother Algie (Algie himself is an off-stage antagonist) the Packers realise they must do something… quick!
If you like rude black comedy, you will not be shocked, but if you think of the lovely Sheila Hancock is comparable to your grandma think again. In Barking in Essex, she swears like a trooper – in fact the whole cast do! Barking in Essex is a play by the late Clive Exton (1930-2007), best known for scripting such TV series as ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ and ‘Poirot’ but here responsible for a work of a very different nature.
It’s true that the tickets bear a note saying “contains strong language throughout” and posters adorn Wyndham’s Theatre saying the same but that seems like a bit of an understatement. On the first page of the play-text alone there are three uses of the c-word and it is used again and again, so you have been warned!
The show starts in the Packers’ Essex home, kitted out in every piece of tack you could imagine from a jukebox to a gold grand staircase and animal print curtains – designed by Simon Higlet, it is pure Essex! We meet ruthless family matriarch Emmie (Sheila Hancock) and her son Darnley (Lee Evans) and his Essex-tanned wife Chrissie (Keeley Hawes) who realise all bar £55 of Algie’s stolen loot has gone on their “lavish” lifestyle. Darnley played to perfection by Evans is a bit dim witted and has not noticed the spending going on around him. Here Evans uses his rubber faced skills faultlessly when he realises they will all be in trouble when Algie returns and there is only one thing to do….RUN!
The plot is driven forwards by the arrival of Allegra (Montserrat Lombard), the love of Algie’s life, who has come to collect his loot just as the Packers are packing up. This causes the family further issues when Algie’s girlfriend turns the tables on the family and starts swearing at them and saying she wants the money now, with Sheila Hancock’s shock very well played. Luckily, Emmie just so happens to know a hitman to get rid of Allegra, who they feel is too smart for the stupid Packers and will work out what they have done. Rocco (Karl Johnson) lives across the road and looks like a friendly grandad who should be out walking his dog, but for £50 he will bump Allegra off. Rocco is a poor hitman though and in the process of killing Allegra he shoots himself, which leads to a funny scene with Hancock asking for plastic bags to be put under Rocco so he doesn’t bleed onto the carpet.
After this the second act begins. I won’t spoil the set-up, but we (the audience) are duped about where the family have escaped to which does provide a clever, original touch. There is a funny scene in which Evans dances in spandex (and how Keeley Hawes keeps a straight face in each performance I have no idea!). There was lots of clapping for Evans after he finished but that is the most exciting bit of the second part of the play as it does get repetitive and the bad language still flows even though the strong cast do not need to use such words.
Exton wrote his play in 2005 and died before its first production could be scheduled, so some of the gags including the opening scene about the TV shows ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ and ‘The weakest link’ seem a tad out of date.
The show feels a bit like a sitcom and the clever location change in the second half had me laughing along with the rest of the audience. Catch Lee Evans, Sheila Hancock, Keeley Hawes, Karl Johnson and Montserrat Lombard before the police do!
Barking in Essex
Charing Cross Road
London, WC2H 0DA