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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Barking In Essex
Wyndham's Theatre    Autumn 2013

This is a one-joke sitcom whose single constantly repeated joke isn't enough to carry the evening. 

Fortunately it has two excellent comic performers at its centre, but they have to work far too hard to keep it afloat, and as their desperation begins to show, what fun they generate begins to pall. 

Clive Exton's play introduces us to a family of criminals, the sort whose money has outstripped their taste and who accept as unremarkable that they and everyone they know actually have bodies buried beneath the patio. 

Mother, son and his wife (who, due to some casual infidelities in the past, are actually more closely related) are awaiting the return of younger son/brother from prison with mixed feelings, since the millions he stashed away from the job that jailed him have been frittered away in his absence, and he is not likely to be too pleased, 

The single joke is that everyone's language is peppered liberally with the small handful of standard four-letter obscenities, which generate knee-jerk laughs from many in the audience. 

Now, let me reaffirm that I have no particular moral objection to the small handful of standard four-letter obscenities, except that they're a lazy and unimaginative way to get laughs, and also one of diminishing returns. 

There is only a limited number of times someone calling someone else a [female genitalia] can be funny, and that limit is reached somewhere in the middle of the first scene, though the repetitions continue. 

This is not the same thing as the way David Mamet anatomises masculine power struggles by how men use obscenities as weapons. It's just the lazy joke of a white-haired mother calling her son the same thing he calls her, again and again, and it does stop being clever very quickly. 

There is a hint of Joe Orton humour in the skewed morality of these characters, in the way they accept theft, incest, murder and betrayal with the same hardly-noticing-it casualness, and there is one clever surprise in the second act, when they've gone into hiding from the vengeful jailbird and the playwright delays telling us where they are. But that's about it. 

What carries the play further than you'd think likely (though not quite all the way) is its good fortune at having Sheila Hancock and Lee Evans as mother and son, and it's almost worth seeing just for them. 

Hancock is exquisitely droll as the foul-talking mother, slyly letting the audience in on the joke that an actress of her experience and stature is good-naturedly reduced to this, while the masterful physical clown Evans just looks funny whether his dim-witted character is just sitting there with his brain turned off, reacting in panic or lip-syncing to a Carmen Miranda record (Don't ask) – though one does sense a whiff of flop sweat as the comedian carrying whole scenes on his shoulders has to reach ever more frantically into his bag of tricks. 

Keeley Hawes, best known for TV dramatic roles, shows no particular affinity for her broadly comic one here, and National Theatre stalwart Karl Johnson, playing the friendly neighbourhood hitman, is given nothing to do and can do nothing with it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Barking In Essex - Wyndham's Theatre 2013 

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