If you don’t mind your humour dolled up and dumbed down then it’s likely you will find the late Clive Exton’s “new” comedy an easy laugh. Exton, most known for working on the scripts of Poirot and Jeeves and Wooster, blends the criminal and the comedic in this blue satire on the nation’s favourite stereotype.
The curtain rises to reveal a particularly garish lounge, complete with zebra print curtains, a floor to ceiling fish tank, a plastic stag’s head and a tower of Fererro Rocher arranged neatly on their own designated table.
The fabulously vulgar set is trumped promptly by the appearance of the first character, fake-tanned and high-heeled Chrissie Packer (Keeley Hawes) who is every bit the imagined Essex girl, announcing her presence with the cry “You c*nt!”
This outburst is aimed at her husband, Darnley (Lee Evans), who has just returned from a particularly disastrous attempt to win a million on the classic game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
It is easy to laugh at dimmer-than-a-burnt-out-light-bulb Darnley’s endearing ignorance, which is enhanced by Evans’ array of exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. Berated by his wife and mother Emmie (Sheila Hancock) for getting the answer to the £100 question wrong, we soon learn of the real reason for their fury. Darnley’s brother Algie is due to return from prison to collect the £3m he left safely in the hands of his mother – the problem being that there is no £3m. The money has been frittered away by Emmie and Chrissie, and the not-quite criminal masterminds have to quickly come up with a Plan B.
What ensues is a comedy of errors, including a botched murder by an elderly hitman, which seems to cause little more concern than the near staining of the leather sofa.
Perhaps a little more prudish than some, the profusion of F-words and C-words initially shocked, and then amused me, before beginning to feel somewhat gratuitous. In true Essex style, the script was more brash than nuanced, and I was left wanting there to be just a little more below the surface. The plot at times felt more gently winding than twisting and turning.
That said, Hancock’s portrayal of the foul-mouthed and loosely moraled Emmie raised more than a few laughs, and the rest of the cast did the best they could with an arguably lacking script.
If you’re looking for some food for thought, or something to take your gran to, this probably isn’t it. But as a respite from the pressures of work or study, a laugh that won’t ask for anything in return may be just what you need.
Barking Essex is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road. Box office: 0844 482 5120.
Box office opening hours: Tue-Sat 10am-7.45pm; Sun-Mon 10am-6pm.
Performance times: Tue-Sat 7.30pm; Thu-Sat 2.30pm; Sundays 3pm.