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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In Basildon
Royal Court Theatre    February-March 2012

A painfully believable picture of how smouldering resentments can poison a family is set in a not-unsympathetic look at a much-maligned segment of society, and if the two strands of David Eldridge's new play don't always hang together comfortably, each is engrossing and involving in itself. 

The death of their brother forces the reunion of two sisters who haven't spoken in twenty years, and clashing expectations about his will reignite their smouldering anger, despite the efforts of their children to leave the past behind. 

All the characters the sisters, the cousins, their partners and a couple of friends live in Essex, not the Essex of dirty jokes about dumb and drunken teenagers, but of families that moved out of London's slums two generations back in search of a better life and found only a very small step up.

In the family feud plot, we don't learn until the very end of the play how it started, and are likely to be surprised by whose fault it was. But what we see during the play is not just a pair of foolishly stubborn middle-aged women, but a specific localised bitterness emblematic of a broader malaise spreading to everyone - thinly-masked unhappiness over missed opportunities, wrong choices, limited potential, frustrated dreams. 

The dead man had always wanted to travel, but never left the twenty-mile-or-so radius of his home and work. One young couple know they'll never be able to escape council housing and buy a home, while one sister is panicked at the prospect of leaving the home she's had most of her life.

Eldridge, along with director Dominic Cooke and the actors, brings this all out skilfully and naturally, making us recognise that these people are all feeling pain and unhappiness greater than their various faults deserve. 

And the sociological setting is not irrelevant. Part of these characters' unhappiness, and of Eldridge's insight into Daily Mail and Sun readers, is that they have inherited their parents' and grandparents' desire for a better life, but have severe limits to their imagination and ambition. 

The weakest scene in the play, because it's the most obviously contrived, brings in an outsider to debate art, liberal values, politics and morality with the locals, and while they hold their own, the dominant impression is that they want very little, are mainly concerned with protecting the little they have, and are suspicious of those who can imagine reaching for more. 

So the sociology helps explain the events of the family story and the family story illustrates and makes believable the sociology and if some of that is a bit too forced or neatly laid out, so that we're too aware of the playwright-as-lecturer, more of the play works than doesn't. 

In a strong cast, much of the weight is carried with sensitivity and grace by Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen as the feuding sisters and Peter Wight as the dead man's best friend.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - In Basildon - Royal Court 2012
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