Having explored the tragic and sordid world of middle class heroin addiction in last year’s The Knot of the Heart, David Eldridge has returned to his old stomping ground, the world he grew up in and the people that inspired Market Boy: Essex. In Basildon is a sharp and engaging family drama that hints at greater themes; often warm but never affectionate, it is haunted by questions of regional identity and the spectre of a great national betrayal.
The story is conventional enough, Len (Phil Cornwell), a bachelor, is dying, and his family have gathered by his side to pay their last respects. As his last breaths rattle out the family bicker relentlessly, and an unexpected change to his will stirs up two decades worth of recriminations and bitterness. Unlike the rest of his family, Len owned his house outright, and his two emotionally stunted sisters are desperate to seize it. Eldridge plays it equally safe with his characters, perhaps too safe, with the garrulous best friend, the amorous neighbour, the upwardly mobile niece and her middle class twit of a boyfriend.
In the first three acts we watch the family crumble, first around his death-bed and then over the course of the following week, in the last we travel back 18 years to where the rot set in. The brilliance of the piece (and there is a brilliance, though a muted one) is its interest in what Basildon means as well as what it’s like. To Ken (a superlative Peter Wight) Basildon is more than a depressed suburb, it’s the remnants of a failed escape. Ken describes his father’s generation as the ‘Plotland People’, who dragged themselves out of the slums and built a village from nothing: a fresh start away from the degradation of urban poverty.
Against out contemporary backdrop of TOWIE culture-slumming, Eldridge asserts a nobility in Essex that now seems content to devour itself. Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and Doreen (Linda Bassett) might hang, buzzard-like, over Len’s corpse, but there’s a more terrible and fundamental vampirism which has reduced them to it crouching just out of sight.
Max Bennett puts in an excellent performance as unwanted guest Tom, the middle-class fish thrown out of his water and into a basin of jellied eels and sozzled vipers, and his ignorant but principled liberalism is given as thorough a bashing as Ken’s Thatcherite self-sufficiency. Eldridge takes no prisoners of either persuasion, with a fierce political argument during the funeral spread, scoffing at the broken promises of Labour and the Tories in turn, giving the play a striking contemporary resonance. With the death of the manufacturing industries Basildon has been left to rot, and Ken stands as memento mori of its lost pride. Ideas of home ownership, class anxiety and family ties, considered in this context, become thrillingly charged. The outcome of the family’s suffocating feud threatens to answer a more fundamental question: does society exist?
It’s frustrating that, having raised such pertinent issues, In Baslidon somehow fails to hammer them home. The last act is endearing where it could have been merciless, it’s wonderful to see Cornwell’s turn as Len in better days but Eldridge is really only sketching in details of a story we’ve already heard. With strains of King Lear and chip shop vinegar it’s a strong scene, but with nothing much to say in a play that elsewhere bulges with under-explored ideas.
Wight’s performance anchors the text in place, but there are few weak links. Bassett wisely underplays the role of Doreen, balanced on a razors edge between haunted victim and malevolent ghoul. Though Jade Williams doesn’t always convince as golden-girl Shelley, she displays some masterful accent work as her practised RP slips eastbound on the District Line.
Dominic Cooke keeps things tight while giving Eldridge’s best comic moments the space to uncoil, though the choice of traverse staging is a difficult one. It leaves Ian MacNeil’s design looking awkward and certain scenes largely obscured, but in other respects it is strangely effective. Watching this desperate working class family disintegrate against a backdrop of Royal Court olive munchers keeps us all on the hook: we’re watching us watching them, it’s an apt if uncomfortable intervention.
Funny, caustic and riven with gallows humour, Eldridge’s play is only hampered by its own modesty. There’s a great play somewhere here, or rather somewhere there, in those villages London swallowed up and then shat back out again, and on the evidence of In Basildon, Eldridge is still the man to write it.