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Review Round-up: Bassett & co are In Basildon

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David Eldridge's new play In Basildon opened at the Royal Court this week (22 February 2012, previews from 16 February).

Directed by artistic director Dominic Cooke, the play follows the final moments of Len, whose family and friends gather at his bedside, and explores themes of inheritance and greed in "the heart of Essex".

Starring Linda Bassett, Debbie Chazen, Phil Cornwell, Ruth Sheen, Christian Dixon, Lee Ross, Peter Wight, Jade Williams, Max Bennett and Wendy Nottingham, it continues in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 24 March 2012.

Michael Coveney

“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 … 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 … Eldridge knows whereof he speaks. His ear is pitch-perfect … 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 … Unfortunately, one half of the audience cannot see Phil Cornwell’s Len on his deathbed in the first act. Otherwise, the arrangement works well … 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.”

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

“Basildon … in British stereotype – is a byword for a brashly materialistic working-class culture. David Eldridge’s play, though sympathetic to its protagonists, does not present a much more edifying picture … Eldridge is deeply ambivalent about his native Essex … he respects his characters without necessarily liking them … Matters are complicated, though, by the venue … Five years of Dominic Cooke’s artistic policy of ‘explor(ing) what it means to be middle class’ may have defamiliarised the Royal Court Theatre’s audience … It now responds with patronising complacency to a genuine working-class family portrait. It seemed to me that on press night the laughter was a little too free and easy … As theatre, this is a prime evening. Cooke’s production is finely judged … Linda Bassett is a mighty actor … With sterling support from the likes of Peter Wight, Lee Ross and Debbie Chazen. But Eldridge seems too close to his subject to be at ease dramatising it … Eldridge is now one of our major playwrights, but I am unconvinced that In Basildon is one of his major plays.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“It gets a laugh in the first minute, despite the presence of a deathbed. The giggle meets the opening line as a well-dressed blonde (Ruth Sheen) is greeted coldly by her dowdier sibling (Linda Bassett, ginger with grey roots). 'Hello Maureen'. 'Hello Doreen'. The chiming makes the laugh uneasy: are we at this arena (it is done in the round) to mock the lower-middles? … Playwright David Eldridge’s exasperated affection and pitch-perfect observation carry the same spirit … The comedy is at times considerable … and a sharp script is directed with spot-on timing by Dominic Cooke … The rising generation are beautifully drawn: tax-fiddling plumber Barry and his stroppy wife (Lee Ross and a terrifying Debbie Chazen) are set against his graduate cousin Shelley … She has not only shacked up with a hilariously cartoonish Guardianista, Tom (Max Bennett) … He states lofty revulsion at the bourgeois ways of the National Theatre: 'I walked away! Broke into a run! Like Maupassant from the Eiffel Tower. Horrified!' The Royal Court audience loved that.”

Paul Taylor

“A gloriously rich, humorous, agonising and politically provocative play … staged by the Royal Court's artistic director, Dominic Cooke, in a bafflingly peculiar, not to say, counterproductive way ... Eldridge has a wonderful ear for dialogue that typifies the quirks and quiddities of this tribe … and he has an Ibsen-like gift for bringing to the surface the intricate emotional under-webbing of the past. But in placing the audience on two sides of the action … the production makes the characters look, from the circle, like specimens under a microscope. And Ken, who rightly gives Labour a large share of the blame for the current crisis, is able to score points too easily off the condescending self-deception of the young Oxbridge banker's son (Max Bennett) who is too much this play's crude fall-guy in his mission to represent the masses. Otherwise, very warmly recommended.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“A juicy slice of working-class Essex … At times deeply poignant … Shelley's posh boyfriend Tom … expounds his hilariously patronising ambition to write 'something that relates to ordinary working people'. Through Tom, Eldridge comments trenchantly on matters of class. Cooke's production, intimately staged in the round, is finely crafted. Wight, Sheen and Bassett all deliver heavyweight performances, and there is vividly compelling work from Lee Ross as Barry. Eldridge's script contains moments of pungent humour. Yet it's not just a chorus of guffaws. Instead of recycling stereotypes, he probes or shatters them. The results aren't always easy to watch, but this is a piece packed with unsettling symmetries. A tepid final act adds little, fleshing out a backstory that needn't be made so explicit. In this last phase the drama loses some of its momentum and fizz. Still, In Basildon is scrupulously observed, and the acting is first-rate.”

Michael Billington

“The best play about British working-class life since Peter Gill's The York Realist … Eldridge writes about the emergence of the new Tory working-class without a hint of patronage or condescension … If Eldridge's play has echoes of Arnold Wesker, who wrote his own play about Basildon called Beorhtel's Hill, or of DH Lawrence, in the laying-out of a corpse, they are the right ones. And this richly observant play is given a near-perfect production by Dominic Cooke who, with designer Ian MacNeil, restructures the Court so that the audience, like the family, is divided in two. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen as the warring siblings, Peter Wight as a defiantly local patriot (‘I'm authentic Basildon’), Wendy Nottingham as a loving neighbour and Max Bennett and Jade Williams as the cultural outsiders also give first-rate performances. Eldridge may not endorse Essex's new rightwing materialism but he records it with absolute fidelity.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

David Eldridge’s watchable new play … The Royal Court’s main auditorium has been given an unusual configuration … Len’s family are grasping and sour and their protestations of kinship are made to look hollow. Peter Wight uses his resonant voice to good effect … The play, true to its title, is in some ways a portrait of the values of Essex, part affectionate, part mocking. We learn the not exactly earth-shattering fact that blue-collar Essex is Right-wing. Once or twice it is as though Mr Eldridge has pasted in sentences from a social guide to the county. Yet he also has a good, wry ear for dialogue … A jerkiness in some of the writing is compensated for by fine acting, not least from the Misses Bassett and Sheen and from Phil Cornwell as Len in earlier life. In the final act, Mr Eldridge … observes that family traits can be repetitive and squabbles can be born of sentimental intentions. Although it is not quite carried off to perfection in this spirited and interesting play, that is certainly the stuff of tragedy.”

Charles Spencer

“This fine new piece by David Eldridge … sees a return to good old-fashioned working-class drama ... What makes In Basildon such a success, though, is Eldridge’s sharp and witty ear for demotic dialogue, and a cracking plot … With great skill, Eldridge brings to life a big family … The bickering, the shifting alliances and the great will-reading scene in this cleverly constructed four-act drama … all combine sharp humour with dramatic clout. This is one of those too rare plays in which you really want to understand the secrets of the characters and learn what will happen next … Cooke directs a gripping, admirably acted production. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen chillingly capture the corrosive resentment of the sisters, while Lee Ross (as Bassett’s son) and Debbie Chazen (as his wife) hilariously lay bare an unhappy marriage blighted by infertility and fecklessness. There are also funny, touching turns from Peter Wight as Len’s best friend, and Wendy Nottingham as one of his former lovers. Eldridge both knows and understands his flawed but far from contemptible characters, and there is an underlying compassion here that never curdles onto sentimentality.”

- Amy Sheppard


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