It is hard to imagine that the writer who gave us screenplays such as 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' and '10 Rillington Place' could also have written this piece which relies for its comedic impact almost wholly on the use of vulgar or obscene expletives, or 'foul language' if you prefer. Clive Exton, who died in 2007, also wrote the TV series 'Jeeves and Wooster' and the popular 'Poirot'. Apparently, the writer was interested in the use of language, and that seemed to be his main focus here because the opening line is 'You c**t'. And there is plenty more where that came from, even in the first minute or two, but also right the way through this play. Now I am certainly no prude and not easily shocked by words, so that is not an issue for me, and using what the tickets describe as 'strong language' is often appropriate, especially given the nature of the characters in this play. But when you strip away the expletives and the initial shock and humour they create, there is very little left in this play to enthral.
Sheila Hancock makes a very welcome return to the West End playing Emmie Packer, the moral-free matriarch of a family that is steeped in criminality. And we are not talking here about petty matters such as nicking the odd item from M & S, or pinching a posh car or two. No, these are criminals who are into heists such as removing millions from safety deposit boxes and the like. In fact, Emmie's younger son, Algie, is about to return home after a spell at Her Majesty's pleasure for stealing over three million pounds from one of those 'secure' locations. And that provides the main focus of the plot because Emmie and her daughter-in-law have basically spent all the dosh that Algie pinched and they fear his wrath when he discovers what has happened to his loot. But that comes after Lee Evans's Darnley kicks-off the play with a tale about his attempt to become rich on the TV programme 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'. Later, in a strange twist, we discover that Emmie's son Darnley and his wife, Chrissie (Keeley Hawkes), are actually brother and sister having their father in common. In the second half, any humorous twinkles in the plot fade as quickly as a blown light bulb. I won't spoil the set-up, but we (the audience) are duped about where the family have escaped to which does provide a cleverly original touch, but not much else.
Simon Higlet's fine set for the first half got a well-deserved round of applause. The interior of the Packer family home, it is an open-plan gaudy nightmare complete with golden spiral staircase, jukebox, leopard skin effect rugs, and a white moose's head which gazes down in silent bemusement from aloft.
You can't suppress quality acting and Miss Hancock is in sharp, fearless form here, and though her sheer presence keeps the show ticking along she really struggles against an uninspiring plot. Lee Evans is her dim-witted son, Darnley, who struggles to comprehend what is going on, in spite of his obvious mathematical skills. We don't get many of Mr Evan's trademark twitches and tics, and he has to fall-back on an odd dance routine in the second half, which did raise a few laughs and applause. Karl Johnson is the local hit-man named Rocco Dimaggio, who disposes of unwanted human beings for a mere £50. With his slight stature and unassuming nature, he seems more like a kindly uncle that you might bump into walking his spaniel in the park.
I suspect this show is going to divide critics and audiences alike. I did laugh from time to time, particularly at Sheila Hancock's shock when Algie's girlfriend turns the tables on the family and starts swearing at them. And I found Lee Evan's summary of his family relationships cleverly written and delivered. If you prefer your humour earthy, raw and (in linguistic terms) unashamedly 'blue', then 'Barking in Essex' may well suit. But even then, apart from the strong language, there is little else to provide great entertainment because the characters don't convince, and the bizarre twists in the plot stretch believability to breaking point and beyond.
"As a piece of black comedy, it is neither sufficiently dark nor consistently funny.. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Exton's stop-go plotting and the sagging patches in Harry Burton's production prevent the material from developing any comic momentum. "
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"I laughed a lot during this play and so did my wife who is usually more prudish than I am. In its black-hearted way, Barking in Essex is often wonderfully funny....This is certainly not a show that will appeal to everyone, but those who like their comedy black, blue and raucous will have a ball. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Barking in Essex is a comedy that knows it's brash and unsubtle. But it also strikes me as desperately unfunny...a terrible waste of a strong cast"
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"This not unamusing play may appeal to office workers looking for an unchallenging night’s entertainment."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail