Within the first 15 minutes of David Etheridge’s In Basildon, the audience hears a throaty death rattle and watches a man die in his living room. It’s certainly an unflinching introduction to the familial dysfunction that dominates the narrative. The fragile tension that once kept the man’s family afloat quickly unravels, as they are forced to plan the funeral and deal with the unresolved conflicts of the past.
The story has two quite different themes: the story and character of the Essex town of Basildon; and human experiences of love and loss. The first theme was rather lost on me: an American, I struggled with a topic that Etheridge chose to frame almost entirely through British pop culture references and local humour. I struggled to understand the precise nature of an ‘Essex girl’, and to disentangle the neighbourhood rivalries that seemed pivotal to understanding the message. Much of the audience laughed and seemed to understand it all perfectly, but a play that relies so heavily on local knowledge of Basildon is bound to lose some people when staged in a swanky, cosmopolitan part of West London.
While the first half dragged a little, the second picked up speed as the play focused on more universal human experiences: I found myself being drawn in as the characters became ever more engrossed in their greed; more preoccupied with their feuds. Linda Basset gives a compelling performance as the needy Doreen, managing to arouse sympathy instead of pity, and her scenes were generally moving. Here, when Etheridge focuses on the universal emotions, the play resonates. Grief and heartache are two elements he manages to convey seamlessly.
However, even allowing for the fact that some of the dialogue went over this foreigner’s head, the play still has a disconcerting roughness. Etheridge seeks to give his working class characters a voice – yet in his eagerness to let them speak, he allows them to sound preachy. They each proclaim their own distinct theory, their story of Basildon; but together their stories seem like a patchwork of mismatched ideas, rather than a woven narrative. Something about the play seems unfinished – the family dysfunction too rigid, too formulaic and scripted to really resemble true discord.
Nonetheless, while the characters seem a little too tightly wound at times, they do manage to give a moving performance in the scenes that really matter. While I can’t say that I took away a complete picture of Basildon – as was perhaps intended – many of the more sentimental moments stayed with me after I left the theatre. And those who already know Basildon might find themselves more satisfied than I with Etheridge’s narrative. After all, it’s rare to find a play that so intertwines comedy and grief, both poking fun at the ‘Essex girls’ and presenting a man in his final moments. ?