|Sheila Hancock, Lee Evans and Keeley Hawes|
“It’s the language of Shakespeare, you cunt!” exclaims a character early in Clive Exton’s Barking in Essex, and it’s a line that could provides a nice little snapshot of what this comedy is like.
Penned in 2005, two years before the writer’s death, this coarse and enjoyable crime farce has only now received a premiere, at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
Exton’s writing career had produced a remarkable variety of work, including the screenplay for the dark crime drama 10 Rillington Place, with Richard Attenborough as real-life murderer John Christie, to co-writing big Arnie sword and sorcery romp Red Sonja, to all 23 episodes of the Jeeves & Wooster TV series that started Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, plus 20 episodes of the David Suchet Poirot.
None of which would quite prepare you for this.
In essence – and without revealing any spoilers – a criminal family from Essex is awaiting the release from prison of one of their number.
However, where he’ll be expecting to enjoy his multi-million pound share of the robbery that saw him incarcerated, his family is expecting trouble, since his mother and sister-in-law have already spent it.
And nobody imagines that he will react to such news in a way that doesn’t involve fatal violence.
Thus the scene is set for the farce that follows.
It’s a feather-light piece, but short and with some funny dialogue that, in the hands of a super cast, crackles.
Sheila Hancock as Ellie Packer, the matriarch of the family, is simply a joy to behold, apparently relishing both the chance to play such an utterly immoral character and deploy the colourful language that is not gratuitous, but a natural part of the rhythm of the piece.
This is, after all, a sort of Only Fools and Horses meets The Sopranos, but there is, at the theatre, a warning about the language.
Alongside Hancock is Lee Evans as Darnley Packer, her somewhat intellectually challenged son.
It’s a role that’s perfectly suited for such a physical comic as Evans, who can actually play straighter than required here (see the very charming 1995 film Funny Bones).
But here, Evans’s well-known comedy style is perfectly suited to the piece.
Karl Johnson as ageing hit man and family friend Rocco, and Keeley Hawes as Chrissie, the orange-tanned wife of Darnley, are also perfect in their roles.
Lightweight it might be, but it’s got some clever little plot twists that you won’t have guessed at, and the ending is smart.
The character observation is good and the language, even if offends some people, is realistic.
Director Harry Burton keeps it all going at a nice pace, and Simon Higlett’s set, particularly in the first half, is an absolute delight of tastelessness – the zebra-stripe curtains being a perfect example.
Not for those with tender ears, but a good fun evening otherwise.
And oh boy, I’d love to think I could be like Hancock if I reach 80.
Note: for those outside the UK, Barking is both a place in Essex, not far from London, and also a slang term for ‘mad’.