Review: In Basildon at the Royal Court

This new play by David Eldridge struck a personal chord with me on several levels. Here, we meet a family that is in feud over money. Family ties are strong, but only up to a point, and when money gets involved, the fragility of these ties become glaring. It is also a revealing study of how families tend to put on a show of solidarity when there is a death in the family. The dead person might have been closest to a friend and shared much of his/her life, secrets and aspirations with this friend but when they die, their families, however distant they have been in the past, act as if friendships are not as deep as familial ties.

But this play is more than a riveting family drama. It is a sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of a community whose voice is increasingly missing in national and public debates – the working class. The condescension towards working class people is neatly illustrated by Tom, a well educated, well meaning young man with family wealth lecturing how the working class should live their lives and why they should vote for Labour. Their response to him categorically suggests that money is important to them, whether it is their own or the state’s, and why Labour has betrayed them. I am always a bit wary of contemporary politics creeping into plays because they tend not to give a balanced and measured perspective but, thankfully, this play does. What is a stark reminder, however, is that mainstream political parties in the UK are moving away from including the working class voice in their debates and dialogues.

Often working class characters in contemporary plays are patronised or portrayed as one dimensional but Eldridge treats his characters with due respect. Their worries, concerns and ambitions are not dissimilar to anyone else’s in the country but their expression of these is more honest. A middle class feuding family may act differently, but similar feuds in a working class family become brutal. There is no mincing of words because survival is the primary concern.

I also enjoyed the play’s mockery of middle class malaise which created some uncomfortable laughter amongst the audience. It is refreshing to see a play that turns the audience’s laughter, initially meant for the characters, ultimately at themselves. There is a wonderful dig at the National Theatre when Tom, an aspiring writer, calls it the theatre for the middle classes. I have often joked that the National Theatre should rename itself as the Home Counties Theatre. Equally memorable is the conversation between Pam, a neighbour to the feuding family, and Tom where she explains why she doesn’t watch news or want anything that is going to make her ‘brains explode’. And it makes sense. Who are we to judge anyone based on the little we know?

The cast, a strong combination of experienced and new-ish actors, does a sterling job. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen give us compelling performances as the once close but now feuding sisters. Lee Ross, who plays the older sister’s son Barry, is excellent for injecting a level of sensitivity into his raw character. Peter Wright who plays Ken, a friend to the dead brother, is superb as an old uncle type character who chides, criticises, flirts and ultimately gives up in bringing the feuding parties together.

The one thing I didn’t like in this production is the seating plan. They’ve opened up the back of the stage for more seating so the stage itself is sandwiched between two blocks of seats. Not quite theatre in the round but definitely not successful in whatever it is trying to achieve, except commercially perhaps. My advice would be to avoid Rows AA – FF in the stalls. I was sat in one of these rows and the stage directions and set hindered my view most of the time.

This is definitely worth seeing; there is much to laugh at but also much to make us question our own views about others.

★★★★☆
Until 5 April 2012.
Written by David Eldridge.
Directed by Dominic Cooke.
Performance time is approximately 2.5 hours with an interval.
http://www.royalcourttheatre.com

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About manipillai

Oh, just a few of my thoughts on theatre.
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