It’s not every day that you see a play where the first word is the most taboo swearword in the English language. Keeley Hawes’s heavily accented expletive rips across the stage, resulting in a rush of laughter from the audience. It becomes pretty clear that Barking in Essex is not your average play. It’s bright, garish, and not in any way subtle, not that it would want to be.
The late Clive Exton’s play puts a resounding two fingers up at the stage traditions of old (which is a pretty tame gesture compared to some of the insults in the actual play), and rather than dealing with the issues of the aristocracy, it deals with an entirely different class. In a world where The Only Way Is Essex has made a fake tan stain upon our consciousness, Clive Exton satirically plays upon our modern understanding of Essex culture, everything from gangsters and animal furnishings, as well the preened Essex girl who despite seeming vapid could knock you out with one fell swoop of her handbag.
Barking in Essex is set in London and its surrounding areas, and follows a family who have been spending the loot of a successful criminal job of their imprisoned family member Algie for years. £3 million, to be exact. Suddenly they are left with a paltry £55 in the bank account and Algie is about to be released, a man known to have grievously harmed a man for being less than complimentary about the stuffing at the family Christmas dinner. The play follows their entirely regretful decisions, culminating in an explosive conclusion, akin to a Shakespearean tragedy but with Lee Evans wearing a flamenco costume.
The most surprising aspect of the play is how incredibly dark it is. A not entirely comfortable storyline between married couple Darnley Packer (Lee Evans) and Chrissy Packer (Keeley Hawes) in which they are actually half brother and sister leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It is a play that certainly thrives on dark humour, the family’s natural disposition towards murder and corruption treated as mundanely as a conversation on curtain furnishings.
The family are greedy, shallow and attention seeking (the discussion of Darnley Packer’s ill-fated appearance on Who Wants to be A Millionaire is one of the highlights) and despite the motherly yet feisty performance of Sheila Hancock as Emmie, they are extremely hard to empathise with. Emmie is one of the most intriguing characters, as the free spending mother of her Kray Twin style offspring, her relationship with Darnley Packer is tinged with an element of sadness. Despite her maternal nature, her desire to escape what’s been catching up with her takes precedence over the care of her rather hopeless son.
The play does have some extremely amusing moments, especially the scene after the family flees Essex and find themselves in a location assumedly of an exotic country, in which it transpires they have in fact only escaped to Luton. It captures family dynamics fantastically well, the question of loyalty and lack thereof pervading much of the play.
The director clearly wishes to take advantage of Lee Evans’s comedic talents as the dim son, with occasional comedy skits including his usual style of elaborate contorted movements and astoundingly odd facial expressions. Though it is debatable as to whether this necessarily gels with his character, the audience seemed to enjoy the comedy stylings.
With the tongue in cheek yet tragic ending, Barking in Essex leaves you with mixed feelings. Though satirical, its themes of murder and incest come as a surprising addition, the dismissal of morals by the family appearing as extremely grotesque.
What started out as light hearted became dark very quickly, with plot points that could be argued to be excessive. Yet a play that embraces the tacky and ignores the rules of theatre in such a way can certainly be admired, and Exton achieves his goal of making a play that is entirely memorable and topical, and one that will undoubtedly make you want to wash your mouth out after leaving the auditorium.