“I’m dying here” says Lee Ross’s Barry, as he is relentlessly ridiculed by his Uncle Len’s best friend Ken. The fact this is said in a claustrophobic room with the dying Len at the centre of it is just one of many points when comedy and tragedy collide in David Eldridge’s wickedly observant In Basildon.
The first act sees estranged sisters Doreen (Linda Bassett) and Maureen (Ruth Sheen) sparring across Len’s bed. Bitterness and resentment spill from every pore as King of banter Ken, the over-sensitive Barry and awkward next-door neighbour Pam try to keep the atmosphere as light as it can be when there is a man taking his last breaths in the midst.
The second sees yet more tension bubble to each character’s emotionally repressed surface as the group wait to hear the contents of Len’s will at his wake, joined by Barry’s chancer wife, beloved niece Shelley – the only member of the family to have escaped Essex to East London in a much commented on move of immigration in reverse – and her liberal playwright boyfriend Tom, whose leftie views and working-class-hero-who-actually-went-to-private-school act further fuels the fires of irritation.
With flirting over the deathbed, a lightweight over-zealous vicar, not-so-subtle innuendos – “stirring the porridge” being a choice example – and silences so loaded even the audience start to think of something to say to break the awkwardness, Eldridge’s state-of-the-nation play is a joy to watch. It captures grief with all its messy, mixed-up emotions and slots into it a group of people who all stand to benefit in some way from the passing of someone who they are genuinely devastated to lose.
The Essex-born playwright builds on the county’s much talked of stereotypes to create a script that is both hilarious – “he’s an Alka-Seltzer in the arsehole” may not have been a phrase I grew up with at home in Essex but it’s definitely one I could adopt – and packed with pathos. Even the casting reflects the play’s proposition of Essex people being proud grafters, with the incredible Linda Bassett’s hard face, rigid with grief and bitterness, in direct contrast to Tom’s (Max Bennett’s) soft features and metro-sexual wardrobe.
With its naturalistic style and subtle exploration into the complications of human emotions, which is accentuated by the Royal Court’s return to its intense in-the-round staging, In Basildon is worthy of Mike Leigh comparisons. With a heart wrenching final third act, Eldridge leaves the evening on a Leigh-like sober note of what could have been.