14th September 2013 matinee – penultimate preview
Finally, after all of the hype and anticipation, we met the Packers. Lee Evans, Sheila Hancock, Keeley Hawes, Karl Johnson and Montserrat Lombard star in a new comedy by late writer Clive Exton which tells the simple yet effective story of Essex crime family the Packers. Algie Packer is soon to be released from prison but his family have spent the £3.5 million that they were supposed to be safekeeping, thus leaving them ready to flee their mansion of a home. But before they have the chance, Algie’s new love Allegra Tennyson has arrived wanting the key to the safe deposit box. With the Packers assuming she is simply after the money they decide to hire their elderly hit man of a neighbour Rocco to deal with her. By the end of act one they find themselves with a corpse, a shot man and a note confirming that Allegra was in fact genuinely Algie’s partner.
The plot has understandably been likened to Only Fools and Horses and does have hilarious moments but sadly does not live up to its billing as a riotous comedy. The only thing that perhaps is riotous about it is the amount of swearing. Although it is funny at times, in my opinion if you find bad language titillating you need to get out more. Act one opens with classical music and the revealing of Simon Higlett’s spectacular set which stinks of wealth and new money. When the word ‘cunt’ is repeated several times in the opening lines, humour is created from the culture clash of it being a word perhaps not expected to be heard. Later on, when Chrissie calls ‘where is that cunt?’ followed by Evans’ deflated reply of ‘I’m here’ it is again funny but does begin to get old. I felt that if the ‘cunts’ and ‘fucks’ were taken out, many of the laughs would be too.
The second act is set in the sort of place where the Packers belong: a poxy flat that is the antithesis to act one’s setting. There’s a brilliant joke in this act where after a great number of suggestions both in the design and in the text that they are in a Peruvian dump worthy of something out of Banged Up Abroad, in actual fact they are more close to home. It’s a joke that perhaps didn’t get the laugh it deserves, maybe because of the many hints of them being somewhere else, hints that strongly show the ignorance of the Packers.
Exton brilliantly shows that with a family who are willing to turn on each other and who have completely lost their moral compass, things can go wrong. For the characters in Barking in Essex, death is the only way of stopping them, and (trying not to reveal too much) once we hear Algie arrive at the flat and the lights go down on a desperate Darnley, there is a suggestion that he will take the same way out. Emmie implores ‘Feelings. Go on feelings’ and mocks morals as being weak and religious but it is Darnley who recognises that ‘you’ve got to have rules’ as a family and that recklessness is simply not enough. Although there is bathos at the end, I felt the script could have been more effective and specific and also wondered if it was not perhaps unique.
The Packers are a family that represent everything that they mock and criticise. ‘She’s filth. Definite filth’ Chrissie Packer accuses of Allegra after demonstrating much worse aspects herself along with Emmie’s criticism of ‘nice language’ because of a few swear words, completely ignorant to her own torrent of expletives. And in the second act she accuses incest on the locals when the Packers themselves are not exactly innocent in that respect.
Exton’s widow Mara writes in the programme that he was fascinated with the English vernacular and I feel he’s captured it extremely well. What he creates feels extremely relevant and reflects what some people are really like today. Evans has said that you can easily replace the Packers with bankers or politicians but by setting the play in Essex perhaps does criticise the shallowness, hypocrisy and greed of anyone (including ordinary people) in today’s society.
The play is excellently-acted all round, particularly from Lee Evans as the layabout Darnley, the only Packer with any redeeming features in that he puts an end (albeit cruelly) to the amoral so-called family. With just a single look he can evoke laughter but as done before in The Dumb Waiter and Endgame also shows his versatility as an actor, particularly in those final moments. Sheila Hancock is hilarious as the mother who can both be callous and motherly. She superbly plays the matriarch of the family but I wondered if the final moments of Emmie’s downfall could be more roundly and deeply played. Keeley Hawes is highly convincing as Darnley’s money-grabbing wife (and sister) whose hunger for fame and a celebrity lifestyle soon leaves her dead – an act which seems quite apt and interesting when seeing talentless, real-life wannabes on the television now. Karl Johnson is impressive as Rocco, who longs for a quiet life rather than the one he lives, but it is hard to ignore the far superior Noises Off that he was in last year.
When the play was announced a year ago I imagined a farce that made the best use of Evans’ skills in physical comedy but although Harry Burton’s production allows for moments of physical humour, it did feel a little crowbarred in.
Some might see this as a very commercial piece of theatre drawing on the recent popularity that TOWIE has brought Essex as well as the star casting bringing in audiences. But any show that brings new audiences into the West End should be applauded. However, many other productions also try to do this but with large numbers of cheaper tickets and day seats. Barking in Essex does neither, but I still do recommend it. Very nearly four stars!
Barking in Essex runs at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 4th January, 2014.