Lee Evans, Keeley Hawes and Sheila Hancock in Barking in Essex
Lee Evans, Keeley Hawes and Sheila Hancock in Barking in Essex

Barking in Essex by the television writer Clive Exton, who died seven years ago, is 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.

I had to check my programme – which contains a brilliant but unpersuasive essay about Exton and television drama by Irving Wardle – several times to go along with Hawes' credit as an Essex slut married to a demented criminal nincompoop (played by Evans) and overseen by Hancock's foul-mouthed, unaccommodating matriarch.

God knows what the plot is, reeling away from a triumph on Chris Tarrant's Who Wants to be a Millionaire (who flashbacks to that any more; aren't we all signed up to the X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing?) to a property scam and a surprise resolution.

Not that you care about anything that happens to this delinquent mob, or doesn't happen, over two hours directed by Harry Burton, designed by Simon Higlett and lit by James Farncombe.

Evans tries valiantly to push things along by turning suddenly "Spanish" in the second act (why?) and the first few minutes of the first act are buoyed up by a rhythmic torrent of foul language. But this isn't Joe Orton. It's not even a student-like imitation of Orton. It's just irredeemably and gloriously bad.

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 (and that's quite a lot) as the hapless hero. Karl Johnson chips in incomprehensibly as an Italianate father figure, and Montserrat Lombard as Allegra Tennyson (nice names, both) has her moment.