In Basildon (The Royal Court)

This ode to Essex owes too much to Mike Leigh’s play.

In Basildon
The Royal Court

Mike Leigh's play Abigail's Party, set in "theoretical Romford", was first performed in 1977. Thirty-five years on, its theme of an uncultured new middle class who, in its search for meaning turns to materialism is addressed again in David Eldridge's complex, enjoyable but unresolved new play. In Basildon's last act is set the day after the 1992 general election. The preceding three are set in the present. In the 18 years that have passed since "Basildon" was painfully etched on Neil Kinnock's heart, south Essex has become a well-worn national joke now celebrated in the reality soap The Only Way Is Essex.

In Basildon takes us beyond ITV2's ironic celebration of wealth minus education, but it remains conflicted. A native, Eldridge wants to acknowledge the "mythic" qualities of Essex Man, how he made a modest but significant exodus from the London East End to Romford and finally to new towns such as Basildon, where individualism began to replace collectivism as a way of life. Some of the play's best speeches affirm Essex: its marshy coastline, the Roman capital of Colchester, Saffron Walden ("pretty for a ride out"). "Ford still has a presence," boasts Ken, best friend of the dying Len, in whose home the action is set.

Len is eulogised by Ken as a hard worker, an autodidact, a stalwart chugger and, praise indeed, a Newsnight viewer. But Ken, played with magnificent moral self-assurance by Peter Wright, although facetious and bearing the impression of 20 years of the Daily Mail, is no idiot.

Eldridge, the educated playwright, cannot but acknowledge the comical potential of the aspirant working classes whose tastes have not yet caught up with their incomes. There is little outright snobbery against Essex culture and Ian MacNeil's set contains not a single Jack Vettriano, but there is plenty of condescension. Len's warring sisters greet each other either side of his death bed with the rhyming couplet: "Hello Maureen"/"Hello Doreen". These are comical names (see also Len/Ken) for comical people who become more so as the generations devolve. Doreen's daughter-in-law, Jackie, is a moronic grotesque with an intellect in inverse proportion to the width of her bottom as displayed by the talented and presumably well-padded actress Debbie Chazen. Her husband is such a pleb that he attends his uncle's funeral wearing a black tie over a football shirt.

Yet rather than achieve the pitch of real satire, the play solemnly argues that working-class decency, family bonds and community life have been corrupted by money, specifically the ownership of property. The play's text is prefaced with a reference to St Paul and the root of all evil. In boom times, affluence may be harmless. In the depressions of the early Nineties and late Noughties - slumps that pointedly bookend this drama - its absence is tragic. In one of the play's cruder moments, the characters' spiritual bankruptcy is symbolised by a vicar drunkenly falling off a chair while discussing Len's funeral arrangements - although, checking with the text, this over-reach may be an elaboration of the otherwise assured director, Dominic Cooke, who converts his main auditorium into the round for the piece. Eldridge draws the sting by making the play's two middle-class characters truly despicable, but spreading the social critique upmarket is no substitute for making us feel for and, perhaps, genuinely like the Basildonians.

Eldridge has every right to be conflicted about Essex. On a county scholarship, he went to the same Essex public school I did. But only
if he had written In Basildon as a riposte to Abigail's Party rather than an amplification, would it have had a chance of entering theatre history beside Leigh's play.

How Abigail's ghost lingers! We are even told Ken once played in an am-dram production of it. The namecheck, although laudably honest, does not work in the new play's favour. Abigail's Party had, at least, the courage of its conviction that the lower middle classes were living in a false consciousness. In leftist theatres all over the land Leigh produced the laughter of catharsis. The laughter induced by In Basildon in a theatre located in one of Britain's richest squares is, or should be, nervous.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times