Basildon is perhaps the unloveliest new town in Essex, a county that – in British stereotype – is a byword for a brashly materialistic working-class culture. David Eldridge’s play, though sympathetic to its protagonists, does not present a much more edifying picture. It begins with a domestic death-bed scene, then moves on to the family strife that develops over a recently changed will. Finally it flashes back to the 20-year-old reason why the two surviving sisters are at loggerheads; it all revolves around territoriality and in particular home ownership, which play to Eldridge’s themes of inheritance and the myth of place.
If the opening exchange, “Hello Maureen” / “Hello Doreen”, does not sufficiently set the social scene, then the additional jingling pairing of dying Len and his best mate Ken may do so. Eldridge is deeply ambivalent about his native Essex, as an epigraph by Arnold Wesker to the published playscript makes explicit: he respects his characters without necessarily liking them.
Matters are complicated, though, by the venue. After so long as the clichéd champion of grim working-class dramas, five years of Dominic Cooke’s artistic policy of “explor[ing] what it means to be middle class” may have defamiliarised the Royal Court Theatre’s audience to the extent that it now responds with patronising complacency to a genuine working-class family portrait. It seemed to me that on press night the laughter was a little too free and easy. Eldridge has clearly included a vein of humour, but he is not mocking his characters – with the possible exception of his surrogate, a would-be playwright whom he makes upper-middle-class in order to lessen this figure’s understanding of his girlfriend’s family environment.
As theatre, this is a prime evening. Cooke’s production is finely judged; Ian MacNeil’s design adds a bank of seating behind the stage so that more of us can be closer to the action, and also confronted with each other’s responses to it. Linda Bassett is a mighty actor, at her best when being crumpled, and as Doreen she is in her element, with sterling support from the likes of Peter Wight, Lee Ross and Debbie Chazen.
But Eldridge seems too close to his subject to be at ease dramatising it. Political arguments, for instance, seem almost brutally injected into the proceedings; if this is deliberate, it is ill-considered. Eldridge is now one of our major playwrights, but I am unconvinced that In Basildon is one of his major plays.