Barking in Essex is so bad it's almost a collector's item, chiefly because of the manically self-indulgent, desperate and irresistibly unfunny performances of titanic Sheila Hancock, Norman Wisdom-infused Lee Evans and – oh dear – the simply gorgeous Keeley Hawes... Not that you care about anything that happens to this delinquent mob, or doesn't, over two hours of torture directed by Harry Burton, designed by Simon Higlett and lit (unfortunately) by James Farncombe... I'm scratching around here for positives: Hancock's timing and insouciance are spot-on brilliant, as you would expect of such a great comedy actress, and Lee Evans gives everything (which is far too much) as the hapless hero.
Barking in Essex is a comedy that knows it's brash and unsubtle. But it also strikes me as desperately unfunny... The plot is so thin you could floss your teeth with it, and while Harry Burton's production has moments of vitality it can't make up for the weakness of the writing. There's nothing that could pass for sharp wit or finely contrived suspense... In fairness I should say a decent chunk of the audience on press night seemed to enjoy it, guffawing every time a C-bomb crashed into the stalls. But to me it felt a terrible waste of a strong cast.
Exton clearly aims for comic outrage since the first words we hear on stage are "You cunt!" They are addressed by Chrissie, a supposedly archetypal Essex girl, to her husband Darnley who has just blown his chance to make some big money... I have no objection to the cascade of four-letter words beginning with "c" and "f", even if I don't find them as inherently hilarious as the first-night audience did. What troubles me is that Exton constantly invites us to laugh not just at his characters' coarse materialism but at their bottomless ignorance... The play has one good surprise gag in the second act but otherwise, as a piece of black comedy, it is neither sufficiently dark nor consistently funny.
Barking in Essex – written in 2005, two years before Clive Exton's death – feels like a laboured and rather desperate attempt to reconnect with his roots... It's a promising premise for a black farce, but Exton's stop-go plotting and the sagging patches in Harry Burton's production prevent the material from developing any comic momentum, especially when there's a complete change of location in the second half (though that occasions the one really funny surprise twist of the evening)... What you're left with is crude, relentless mockery of the Essex brigade's stupidity and skewed materialist values.
The opening made me laugh. At the third profanity I smiled. By the 50th, well, the bad language had lost its comic novelty... Terrific set: zebra-striped curtains, a column-shaped fish tank, a jukebox and a sweeping staircase down which old mother Packer (Sheila Hancock) makes her entrance, effing and blinding in a pink dressing gown and trainers... The swearing will not suit some coach-party crowds. You'd think twice about taking anyone under 16. Some talk of the late Mr Exton in the same category as Joe Orton.
I laughed a lot during this play and so did my wife who is usually more prudish than I am. In its black-hearted way, Barking in Essex is often wonderfully funny. Imagine a cross between Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and you will get some idea of the dark comedy on offer here... This is certainly not a show that will appeal to everyone, but those who like their comedy black, blue and raucous will have a ball.
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