When a new play takes over Pounds 1.5 million in advance bookings the mood music is auspicious. But the proof, ultimately, is not in the audience's enthusiasm before the curtain goes up, but rather on their reaction once it has risen.
But the cast of Barking in Essex can relax. Stand in the foyer at the Wyndham's Theatre during a performance of this new comedy and laughter and thunderous applause spill out from the auditorium; an uncontainable tidal wave of glee. No doubt the late Clive Exton would be extremely chuffed to know that his new comedy is, as they say in Essex, getting such a 'quali'ee' response. Boasting a stellar cast that includes funny man Lee Evans, veteran actress Sheila Hancock and star of TV's Spooks and Ashes to Ashes Keeley Hawes, the story follows lowlife conman Algie Packer. Due for release after a seven year stretch inside, Algie is returning to his Essex home to spend his carefully stashed nest egg of Pounds 3.5million. Putting the 'fun' in dysfunctional, his criminally-inclined family have forgotten to mention something to Algie, and now they've got a problem the size of Southend Pier... An intriguing premise, by all accounts the show is attracting a diverse fan base. Different groups of people laugh at different things, says Keeley Hawes, who dons the most vertiginous of heels to play Chrissie. The audience is a real mixed bag, from the Essex gang to the older theatre-going crowd. Laughing, she adds, Funnily enough it's the older theatre-going crowd who laugh the hardest. You think, oh crikey, that could be my Nan laughing out there! Initially attracted to the role because of the opportunity to work with her fellow cast members, Keeley says that the play itself also had huge appeal. The writing talent behind such highly acclaimed films as 10 Rillington Place and television dramas, including Poirot, and Jeeves and Wooster, Clive Exton has created some potty-mouthed monsters to speak his words in Barking in Essex.
The writing is lovely. I read the first couple of pages and it made me laugh out loud, says Keeley. It's an unusual play and it shocked me and took me out of my comfort zone, but I knew it was the sort of play I would like to go to the theatre to see myself. Sheila Hancock, who plays the matriarchal Emmie, agrees: It's an important play as well as a very funny play because it's about our culture and where it might go if we're not careful.
But how does she feel about the effing and jeffing? It's the language of a certain group of people and these people would speak like that; it would be ridiculous to portray them any other way. And it's used very constructively, very poetically almost.
You have to learn it very accurately because it has a rhythm and a metre in the same way that Shakespeare does. It shocks when it should and it makes you laugh when it should. That people get so offended by language is astonishing to me, but then I use a lot of bad language myself, she says, with a grin.
As to their roles, both actresses cheerfully agree that both Chrissie and Emmie are pretty vile creatures. The part I'm playing is this savagely ignorant woman, says Sheila. She has no redeeming features, which is what attracted me to her. She's an appalling mother, but for some extraordinary reason the audience take her to their hearts.
Chrissie is such good fun to play, adds Keeley. She's not terribly sympathetic but you can have a laugh and a giggle at Chrissie.
And it seems that second sight may have played a part in the creation of the play and its characters. When I read the script I thought it was set now, but actually it's set in 2008, Keeley explains. TOWIE didn't exist then so Clive pre-empted that quite brilliantly.
Given that she is playing such an ill-educated and crude character, for Sheila there is a happy juxtaposition in her work as an ambassador for the charity DigiSmart, a web-based project which helps children to achieve a confidence-building sense of success as they come towards the end of primary school. I feel passionate about people's entitlement to culture and I am passionate about our children being literate, she declares. This is a programme that picks up children that are failing at nine and ten, before they go up to big school and fail forever. It's been tested for ten years and it gets amazing results. I'd like to see it in every school, and not just for failing children. It transforms kids, says Sheila, who is juggling her performance schedule with doing the final edit of her first novel. Admitting that she found it much more difficult to write than her previous non-fiction titles, the story is about a teacher working in the resistance during the war. I loved doing the research but I've no idea if I'm pleased with it or not. It's like my work in theatre, I don't know if it's good until I hear the audience reaction. But I have enjoyed the process and I do hope to do more writing.
As for Keeley, future projects are stacking up. But for the time being the West End is a convenient and happy place to be. My husband [actor Matthew Macfadyen] is round the corner doing Jeeves and Wooster, so we'll be able to see people for dinner together and do our Christmas shopping together between shows, she smiles. But, given that there are only three days off over Christmas, she knows what she's asking Santa to pop in her stocking. A onesie and some cocktail sticks to keep my eyes propped open, she laughs.
And maybe some cocktails to go with the sticks? Oh yes, that would be perfect! But whatever Santa does or doesn't bring, if it's a good giggle that's at the top of your list, then head for the Wyndham's. Admittedly you won't find the fella in the red suit giving it 'ho ho ho', but Barking in Essex will certainly have you howling with laughter.
By Vicky Edwards BARKING IN ESSEX is at Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2. The play contains bad language and is suitable for ages 16+ Box Office: 0844 482 5120 www.barkinginessex.com
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