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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Court


  Jade Williams, Ruth Sheen, Debbie Chazen and Lee Ross/ Ph: Keith Pattison

Let us begin with some cultural context. Essex is a county to the east of London that is the butt of many a joke about working-class vulgarity. It is said to be a place populated by the nouveau rich, and by loose women and men who are wheeler-dealer types who can fit your house with a new boiler and on the way out sell you tickets to a rock concert at the O2 arena. The name Essex dates back to the early Middle Ages and is rooted in Old English for East Saxon. The emblem on the county’s coat of arms is of three Saxon scimitar-shaped swords, though a modern-day flag might bear the image of a scuffed stiletto. And although it’s a place about which Essex-born playwright David Eldridge writes with great affection, Eldridge is also ruthless in his depiction of some of its people and in particular of a grief-stricken, feud-riven working-class family whose members communicate with each other in language comprised of lyrical slang and screaming obscenities.
The imminent death of 60-year-old Len has forced the reluctant reunion of comically named sisters Doreen (Linda Bassett) and Maureen (Ruth Sheen), who, it emerges, have not been on speaking terms for nearly two decades. Eldridge leaves it to the final flashback act before revealing the cause of the rift. But as much as anything, it is the ritual of grief that grips here. With Len laid out on a bed in the living room, pre- and post-funeral mourning gets mixed up with waiting to hear about the contents of Len’s will, which he changed only two months previously. It’s the responsibility of his best friend Ken (Peter Wright) – largely an unwanted presence – to open and read the letter.
The unopened will may not be the most original of dramatic vehicles, but Eldridge expertly uses it to lend tension to his play while exploring the theme of working-class aspiration. House ownership is key. For Len’s unsuccessful nephew Barry (Lee Ross) and his outsized wife Jackie – a terrifyingly demanding Debbie Chazan – Len’s semi-detached home is crucial for their baby-making plans. Though it will entail making Barry’s mum Doreen homeless. Similarly the appearance of a vicar in front of whom Doreen and Maureen tear strips of each other is not exactly groundbreaking drama, but it works superbly well. And the no-holds-barred vehemence with which this family hurls insults at each other – most of them as witty as they are crude – has a ring of truth about it.
Only occasionally does Dominic Cooke’s gripping production feel over-egged. Tom, the middle class playwright boyfriend of Maureen’s daughter, is too naïve in the assumptions he makes about working class people having socialist principles. But his patronizing ambition to give the working classes the kind of brilliant theatre they deserve is an awfully funny joke made at the expense of the Royal Court, a venue which has a history of dedicating itself to that cause. A cause in whose service Tom could do a lot worse than emulating his talented Essex-boy creator, David Eldridge. 


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