Essex is immersed in the mythology of the East End gangster. Coming from Dagenham, a town much like Barking’s smaller, scrappy brother, sharing a borough in the way that they might reluctantly share a room, stories and jokes about the likes of “mad” Frankie Fraser hang in the air round here in a mist of nostalgia.
On the surface, the late Clive Exton’s Barking in Essex looks to add to this sense of nostalgia, conjuring up the old East End in a very modern, stereotypically ‘Essex’ living room complete with bright plastic furnishings, fake fireplaces and a golden staircase. And yet the darkness behind this comedy about a family of gangsters seeps into the laughter like the blood the family’s matriarch (Sheila Hancock) is so determined to prevent from staining the leather cream settee.
It all starts light-heartedly enough. The dim-witted Darnley Packer (Lee Evans) is explaining to his mother Emmie (Hancock) and wife Chrissie (Keeley Hawes) just how his appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? went quite so wrong. This opening is the ideal showcase of Evans’s talent for physical comedy, contorting his elastic limbs in order to give us a glimpse of the slow motion run he opted for to make his game show entrance, his face the perfect picture of stupidity. Hancock too, revels in her foul mouthed role as the manipulative Emmie and Hawes is similarly steely, her eyes forever calculating under curtains of false lashes.
With stellar performances such as these, and able support from Karl Johnson as hit man Rocco DiMaggio and Montserrat Lombard as posh Allegra Tennyson, the laughs of Barking in Essex initially come freely and easily. Evans conveys Darnley with such a childlike innocence that you believe when he tells his beloved family, “I will never portray you,” his misuse of the word making him all the more endearing. And yet the revelation that Darnley’s brother Algie is returning home from prison, and that Emmie and Chrissie have spent all his loot money, sparks a chain of violence that punctuates the comedy in short, sharp jolts that bring with it a real sense of shock.
Suddenly the laughs come a little more uneasily, as the realities of a life of criminality reveal themselves to us in moments that switch the tone as quickly and instantly as a light switch, the light back on almost before you can properly register the flash of darkness. It is in these moments that Exton cleverly deconstructs the nostalgia that surrounds these East End gangsters to reveal the true horror behind the glamour and meaning behind the light-hearted cockney rhyming slang.
Much has been said about the swearing in the show but once you get over the initial shock of seeing the 80-year-old Hancock turning the air blue, your hearing adjusts to instead enjoy the natural rhythms of each character’s speech of which the swearing is a necessary part. Mastering the delicate balance between darkness and light, Barking in Essex is a fun, fast-paced ride that gathers particular momentum through its twists and turns in tone. If you like your comedies with a body count, Barking in Essex is the perfect option for an evening of squeamish pleasure.
Barking in Essex is playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 4 January. For more information and tickets, see the Barking in Essex website.