Theatre Review: Barking in Essex - Wyndham's Theatre ✭✭✭

Barking in Essex
Sheila Hancock (Emmie Packer), Lee Evans (Darnley Packer) & Keeley Hawes (Chrissie Packer)
Photo by Alastair Muir
Wyndham's Theatre
Review by Emma Curry

Essex is probably the most famous county in Britain at the moment, thanks to the popularity of a certain reality TV show and its perma-tanned cast members. The time seems right, then, for the first performance of Clive Exton’s final play, Barking in Essex, written just before his death in 2005.

The story deals with various members of the Packer family, an affluent crime dynasty who currently reside in a hilariously tacky house in Barking, filled with cream carpets, blinged-up cushions, lava lamps, and a jukebox in the corner. Elder brother Algie is about to be released from prison and return to this leopard-print luxury to enjoy his earnings from a previous robbery. There’s just one problem…the rest of the family have spent his millions whilst he’s been inside. What follows is one part Carry On, one part Pulp Fiction, as slightly dim-witted younger brother Darnley (a hilarious, gurning Lee Evans), his wife/half-sister (!) Chrissie (an unexpectedly uncouth Keeley Hawes) and no-nonsense matriarch Emmie (a fabulously sweary Sheila Hancock) enlist the services of hitman Rocco (Karl Johnson) to help sort things out. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.

Lee Evans  and Sheila Hancock
Photo by Alastair Muir
Perhaps the most surprising element of this play is the language: the swearing begins approximately ten seconds into the first scene and is pretty relentless throughout. However, whilst some members of the audience around us bristled every time Sheila Hancock dropped the F-bomb, to me the idiom felt authentic for this group of characters, and fitted with the gangster-lite scenario. The insults are also, at times, surprisingly creative. Just don’t take your children along with you…

The cast really throw themselves with gusto into these roles, and they’re a real departure from type for all of them. Keeley Hawes in particular is having a ball as the spray-tanned Chrissie, who seems to have stepped straight from the ITV2 reality show, whilst Lee Evans really makes the most of the physical comedy of his role. Sheila Hancock has some of the best volte-face puns of the play, and sets each one up perfectly.

My quibble with this show relates to the story itself: the plot is rather thin and the pace somewhat plodding: the twists and turns, such as they are, aren’t enough to pep things up, particularly in the second half. The cast are excellent, and make the most of the banter between them, but I felt the play didn’t have much to say about the stereotypes it was sending up, and whilst it was fun to watch these quirky characters interacting with each other, I wanted a little more substance.

Three stars ✭✭✭



Wyndham’s Theatre
Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0DA

Performances:  Monday-Saturday at 7.30pm*; Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm**
*7.00pm on Monday 16 September; ** no matinee on Saturday 7 September

Christmas 2013 performances:  no performances on Tuesday 24 and Wednesday 25 December; additional matinee on Tuesday 31 December 

Tickets:  6-19 September: £22.50 - £42.50; from Friday 20 September: £22.50 - £52.50

N.B.  The play contains bad language and is suitable for ages 16+