sat 18/05/2024

Barking in Essex, Wyndham's Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Barking in Essex, Wyndham's Theatre

Barking in Essex, Wyndham's Theatre

Sweary crime caper runs out of steam

Lee Evans, Keeley Hawes and Sheila Hancock as the very dysfunctional Packer familyAlastair Muir

First, a warning to those who find certain swearwords beyond the pale - this article contains a few of them, but nothing like the number in the play it reviews. Barking in Essex is not a evening out for your proverbial maiden aunt. 

Naughty words open the action, as Darnley Packer (Lee Evans) is chased onstage by his wife, Chrissie (Keeley Hawes). “You cunt!” she shouts at him. And again: “You cunt!” Darnley, you see, has just made a fool of himself on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where he failed to answer the first question - about what kind of animal Bo Peep lost - correctly and ended up giving presenter Chris Tarrant a right kicking.

The Packers, led by matriarch Emmie (Sheila Hancock) are a violent criminal family who think nothing of offing someone who crosses them (Tarrant got off lightly) and are as thick as they come. Nearly every utterance contains the words “fuck” or “cunt”, which are used almost by way of punctuation, and which provide most of the play's comedy.

For much of the first half I found the language very funny

Emmie and Chrissie are harbouring a secret; they have been raiding the safe deposit box containing the proceeds of a robbery by Emmie's other son, Algie, to fund their lavish lifestyle in Essex – Simon Higlett's design of their ghastly mansion is superb - but now he's about to be released from prison and the game is up. They know he'll top them, but before that happens his girlfriend Allegra (Montserrat Lombard) comes knocking at the door, demanding to be given the key to the box. The women then hire their friendly local hitman, Rocco (Karl Johnson), to despatch Allegra before she discovers their deception.

I must say for much of the first half I found the language very funny - some people really do talk like this - and it's pure joy hearing Hancock deliver a line such as “He wouldn't know a book if it bit him in the bollocks” with relish. But take away the bad language (which would give The Thick of It a run for its money in terms of frequency, if not creativity) and there's little left by way of characterisation and plot, believable or otherwise. The story fizzles out in the second act, when the action has moved to the grotty flat in Spain where the family have run to to escape both the law and Algie's ire.

Matters aren't helped by Harry Burton's static direction and the evening's variable pace dips fatally in the second act - although thankfully he keeps Evans's gurning to a minimum. Hancock is always watchable, and Hawes is terrific as the orange-coloured gorgon Chrissie, who could have stepped straight out of an episode of The Only Way is Essex. But what should be played as fast-moving farce feels much longer than its two-and-a-quarter hours, and even the swearing becomes tiresome after a while.

Clive Exton, who wrote, inter alia, many of ITV's Hercule Poirot stories and 10 Rillington Place, completed Barking in Essex two years before he died in 2007; I predict his play will have the last rites pronounced very soon.

  • Barking in Essex is at Wyndham's Theatre
Take away the bad language and there's little left by way of plot, believable or otherwise


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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I know that some reviewers are trying to be 'cool' by printing offensive swearwords in full, but is it really necessary? To their discredit, the arts desk (and one or two others) obviously believes that the answer 'Yes'. Whatever happened to editorial discretion?

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