Funny thing, swearing. That is, it starts out funny and then becomes something else. Coming from the mouth of Sheila Hancock’s criminal matriarch Emmie Packer, it kicks off with a hilarious sort of commitment as she moves around her flashily opulent Barking house in a blizzard of her own profanities.
Her son Darnley (Lee Evans) is not to be outdone. Nor is his wife Chrissie (Keeley Hawkes). They’re both talking her language here, returning her effs with cees and whatever else they can get their hands on. It’s done with the relish of professional villains appropriating naughty goods and making them their own.
The audience finds this very amusing, but you can feel the laughter losing its edge as the surprise of the four-letter words wears off. The author, the late Clive Exton, consummate pro that he was, must have known that this would happen and that what we would be left with was just another set of much-used adjectives – in other words, an accurate account of these people speaking. I’m reminded of the working-class Scots writer – and Booker Prize winner – James Kelman defending himself against charges of gratuitous bad language by saying it’s how his people talk and if he can’t let them get on with it then he can’t portray them with any hope of realism.
So with Exton and his family of cussing crimbos, living high on the hog of some lucrative work seven years ago by Emmie’s other son Algie – work for which he has earned himself nothing more than a jail sentence. Of seven years. In other words, he’s nearly out. Since his relatives have been spending in the style to which he would love to become accustomed, his imminent arrival lowers over their garish spendaholism like an unspeakable storm front.
Beyond the confines of the play, sharply directed by Harry Burton, there’s the intriguing sub-plot of Exton himself, who died in 2007, just a couple of years after completing this strange piece of work. This being its first production, he missed it. He’d been a hard-working and prolific young writer back in the Fifties and Sixties, jobbing with pride and craftsmanship for the then emerging market of TV social realism, as typified by the weekly Armchair Theatre slot.
Yet the term hardly does him justice, for what that (probably angry) young man was bringing to the party was black comedy before such adjectives as Ortonesque and Pinteresque became subject to overuse. Here he is, plainly revisiting that darkness late in his own day. Line by line, minute by minute, the shimmer falls from the family’s décor, treachery looms, nemesis is at the door, conspicuous consumption gives way to penury, and the swearing, if that’s what it was, slumps into the patois of desperation. If you choose, as I do, to see a parable of greed and wastage here, then there’s something downright Jacobean in what’s coming for these people.
And yet; Exton was a gifted comic writer, and his horizons were broad. As the veteran critic Irving Wardle has noted, he made P. G. Wodehouse’s voice so much his own in the scripting of the (Fry and Laurie) Jeeves and Wooster that he could “transfer it from the narrative to the dialogue, whilst also endowing Bertie with more red blood than the original boneless wonder.”
Perhaps something of this wit followed Exton from Bertieshire to Barking. Hard on the heels of Ellie’s revelation that her son and daughter-in-law are also brother and sister comes the breezy observation that this means any children would have the choice of calling them Mummy and Daddy or Auntie and Uncle.
Defiant brazenness from Hancock as Ellie, faithfully carrying out her late husband John Thaw’s advice to “keep popping out of a different hole;” seedy menace from Karl Johnson as the family’s hapless hitman Rocco; desperate physical comedy from the versatile Lee Evans. Yes, there’s language all right, but how else are people meant to speak?
by Alan Franks @alanfranks
32-36 Charing Cross Road
London, WC2H 0DA
Evenings Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm
Age Restrictions: Strong language, 16+
Booking Until: 4th Jan 2014
Important Info: Please note: the production contains strong language and swearing.
BARKING IN ESSEX by Clive Exton
Lee Evans (Darnley), Sheila Hancock (Emmie), Keeley Hawes (Chrissie), Karl Johnson (Rocco) and Montserrat Lombard (Allegra)
Monday 16th September 2013