Len’s dying in Basildon. His sisters, Maureen and Doreen (or “Maur” and “Dor”), who haven’t spoken for 20 years, gather at the bedside together with best friend Ken, neighbour Pam and nephew Barry, who lives in a council flat with his overweight wife Jackie.
The simmering family feuds in David Eldridge’s fine new play are threaded through a discussion of the lives they’ve all led in transit from the East End in the Second World War to “overspill” Essex in Romford and now the “plotlands” of Basildon and nearby villages of Laindon and Vange.
It’s not just because I am familiar with these demographic shifts that I enjoy the play so much; Eldridge is on to something that hasn’t been written about much, or at least so well, in our theatre. Just as Ken is “authentic Basildon,” Eldridge is “authentic Romford” with a few twists.
Ironically, he even incorporates a well-meaning, middle-class dramatist, the boyfriend of Len’s niece Shelley, who wishes these people would pull themselves together and get some culture on the hilarious and patronising grounds that “art” is the least they deserve. Ken sorts him out big time.
Eldridge knows whereof he speaks. His ear is pitch-perfect. Len has worked hard all his life at Ford’s and in management. The sisters have fallen out over the legacy of the house (as we see in a flashback final scene). And Barry (Lee Ross) is desperate to own his own place, hopefully Len’s. Barry’s pushy wife Jackie (Debbie Chazen) is a slight problem, too – she’s from Barking.
There’s a feel of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party about some of this (Leigh said that masterpiece was set in “theoretical” Romford), but with the reading of the re-written will - which has been entrusted to Peter Wight’s earth-larding, domineering Ken - we’re suddenly in an update of an Edwardian, or even Manchester school, cliff-hanger.
It’s all beautifully controlled in Dominic Cooke’s brilliantly cast production which has been placed by designer Ian MacNeil on a traverse stage in a reconfigured auditorium (similar to that for Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch), complete with pine-style sideboard, chocolate stripy sofa and an odd mix of comfy and functional chairs.
Unfortunately, one half of the audience cannot see Phil Cornwell’s Len on his deathbed in the first act. Otherwise, the arrangement works well. And the staging even accommodates a black, drunk vicar (Christian Dixon) who slugs the whisky while executing that creepy task of researching his eulogy.
Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen as Dor and Maur are expert in conveying their seething animosities in profile, and there’s a really delicious performance by Wendy Nottingham as the disappointed Pam, declaring her “spread” open at the wake and nursing a flickering flame for the marginally obese Ken.
Len’s death rattle is followed by a reconciliatory chorus of the West Ham anthem, “I’m forever blowing bubbles,” and if the only way is Essex, local (or nearly local) audiences will enjoy the memories of the Hammers and the chicken run and the idea that a new generation – Shelley (Jade Williams) and boyfriend Tom (Max Bennett) – are re-colonising Walthamstow, which now has good transport connections and “is like Highgate in the village.”