If you know one thing about London’s newest no holds barred comedy Barking In Essex ,it probably has something to do with the show’s face-slappingly brash language, which is fruitier than a greengrocer holding a Christmas cake while wearing a Carmen Miranda hat.
The coarse linguistic choices of the comic caper, which follows the misadventures of a family of gangsters who panic when the eldest son is released from prison expecting to find a few million quid that they’ve already spent, have caught the attention of just about everybody who’s passed within a three metre radius of the Wyndham’s theatre, where the show is playing, or has a passing knowledge of someone else who has.
Littered with more expletives than a dumping ground for Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown’s old stand-up scripts, it was the potty-mouthed choices that caught the eye of the usually so demure Keeley Hawes too. Formerly a quick-thinking intelligence officer in Spooks, the lady of the house in Upstairs Downstairs and an out of place, polite policewoman in Ashes To Ashes – where she previously worked with her now Barking In Essex co-star Montserrat Lombard, or “Montsy” if you know her as well as Hawes – Barking’s Chrissie Packer is quite a change of pace for the actress who, surprisingly for one so much a fixture on our TV screens, is making her West End debut.
“There were three lines [on the opening page of the script],” Hawes laughs, as we chat about why Barking In Essex tempted her to the stage. “Two of them were ‘You c**t!’ and the other was ”Ere, ‘ere, ‘ere, who you calling a c**t?’ I thought ‘Get in!'”
Unsurprisingly, it has been lines like that that have been making ears prick up or fold back in on themselves in disgust. Some, like Hawes, love it. Other’s less so. “The reaction to the play has been what we predicted it would be,” she says. “We had a really strong reaction with people falling one side or the other. There’s nobody sitting on the fence about it. That’s great because it’s a new play and exciting because people have an opinion. There’s nothing worse than seeing a show and not giving a hoot about it. People talk about it at the stage door. They want to have a conversation with you about it.”
“There’s nobody sitting on the fence about it. There’s nothing worse than seeing a show and not giving a hoot about it.”
That is not to say there was not concern about the effect the language might have on potential and actual audiences. The British theatre great Sheila Hancock, who plays Hawes’ mother-in-law was, says Hawes, worried about older theatregoers coming to see the production. She needn’t have been, Hawes laughs: “Nobody laughs as hard as those guys. They’re loving it for what it is. They’re not surprised, they’re not shocked and they’ve been some of our nicest audiences. They come, they laugh, they don’t leave.”
Apparently there was a preview quite early in the run, at which a trio of children, still wearing their school uniform, were sat with their parents in the front row. The parents were warned and decided to stay. “The children didn’t spontaneously combust. Clearly they were alright. My 13-year-old will probably come at some point with my nephews and have a boys’ night out. At 13 I have to accept that he will have heard those words and used them. It’s something that is going to be in his day-to-day life. I’d be naïve to think otherwise.”
Fs, Cs and other letters that would make a squaddie blush aside, Barking In Essex is a tale of bumbling criminals and a family who, when push comes to shove comes to loaded pistol waving, will all look out for number one. Chief bumbler among them is comedian and actor Lee Evans, who plays Darnley Packer, the grey matter-deficient son whose inability to get past the first round of TV game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? sparks that expletive-filled opening to the production. “He’s very twinkly,” Hawes says of her famously energetic co-star whose onstage dancing has led her close to corpsing. “He’s one of those dangerous people you have to watch out for.”
Though Hawes has been a near permanent fixture on our TV screens since 1996, in series ranging from Our Mutual Friend to Tipping The Velvet and Identity, it was not until 2011 that the Sylvia Young Theatre School-trained actress made her professional stage debut. Of all the places you could mark such a milestone, it came at probably any stage performers number one venue of choice, the National Theatre, where she starred opposite Joseph Millson and Jessica Raine in Rocket To The Moon.
“I wanted to take it slowly,” she explains about the production in which she deliberately chose a more supporting role, easing her way into theatrical life with a lesser character on the one hand but testing herself on the National’s gaping Lyttelton stage on the other.
“If you hate me, you should probably go on a long holiday.”
There’s just a hint that, as fond memories go, her time at the National is not at the top of the list – she once had an anxiety dream in which she was called back to the Southbank institution to perform in Starlight Express: “I woke up sweating about that!” – so she clarifies: “I just spent a lot of time in my dressing room thinking ‘I wish I was on stage.'”
Happily the stage is where she will be spending most of this autumn, as will her husband, Ripper Street actor Matthew Macfadyen, who is set to play PG Wodehouse’s eponymous valet opposite Stephen Mangan’s blundering aristocrat in Jeeves And Wooster In Perfect Nonsense. As we discuss the star couple appearing in London’s glamorous West End simultaneously, the grounded reality of Hawes’ family life – she has three children – comes to the fore. In the manner of any average commuter, she’s excited about being able to meet up with her husband to travel home together. It all seems very unglamorous, very un-Chrissie Packer. But Hawes and Macfadyen aren’t paparazzi courters. They’re not celebrities for celebrity’s sake.
Though you might see a lot of Hawes this autumn, it’s unlikely to be on the Daily Mail website’s sidebar of shame as she falls out of one party or another. It’ll probably be because you just need to turn your head in central London to spot a Barking In Essex poster or because, yet again, you only have to be within three feet of a television to catch one series or another in which she’s appearing. This autumn you’ll spot her in Mitchell and Webb comic drama Ambassadors, Sky Atlantic’s The Tunnel and reuniting with her Rocket To The Moon co-star Raine for the second series of acclaimed police drama Line Of Duty.
“By the time 4 January comes around I’ll be well out of everyone’s hair,” she laughs, adding, with just a hint of Chrissie slipping into conversation for the first time, “If you f***ing hate me, you should probably go on a long holiday.”
No need, her name on a credit list is usually a decent barometer of a show’s quality. As Chrissie might put it, “I’ll be f***ing well tuning in, you c**ts.”