Barking in Essex attracted the masses before we’d even read the biopsy. The veteran Sheila Hancock, the hilariously physical comedy of Lee Evans and the faux-cockney lilt of Keeley Hawes; the cast was enough to give the box office a healthy boost, good reviews or not.

The cast was there and so the story was cast aside. The overriding theory was that watching Lee Evans put his socks on would probably still manage to be funny.

Despite the strong cast however, the reviews were less than glowing with many attributing the copious amounts of swearing in the show as over the top, tiresome and garish. Hearing 80 year old Sheila Hancock turn the air black and blue was less of a theatre taboo, more of a bad attempt at trying to flout a particular swearword within an inch of its life, according to the critics.

‘Why have such talented actors put their names to such a dreadful play?’ was another popular critique.

After purchasing tickets and waiting for weeks for the night to come, it’s fair to say that trepidation was brewing as the overriding bad reviews started to sour the all-star cast. At least the stage design and lighting would give us something to focus on, even if the audience remained dead-pan throughout the performance.

But once the curtains came up and the first sentence uttered was a spiel of insults and that swearword, Barking in Essex only got better. Yes, the swearing was over-done and could only ever hope to achieve so many laughs, but the twists, turns and physical comedy was where the real appeal of the play lay.

The story, penned by the late Clive Exton, focuses on the ultimate rough and ready Essex crime family, a family with so little scruples that mothers stitch-up sons, hit-men live next door and married couples turn out to be brother and sister.

After running through a healthy £3.5 million of someone else’s money, the Packers are in trouble, especially considering the money belongs to soon-to-be-released jail-bird Algie Packer, brother to Darley (Lee Evans) and son to Emmie (Sheila Hancock).

The Packer’s consequently go on the run to a not-so glamorous destination and disaster ensues. Remember, this lot are shameless and the fact they’ll happily bump each other off is reiterated throughout the play to hilarious effects.

With the first half of the play set in a delightfully garish living room designed by Simon Higlett, James Farncombe’s stage lighting is constant yet effective, utilising downward facing spots to illuminate the cast in the type of warm light emitted from a very tacky chandelier – an instalment which is obviously present in the leopard-print clad Packer mansion! Despite the plethora of lighting grids and Fresnels present in the Wydhams Theatre, the simple illumination worked well and allowed the cast and script to carry the play as opposed to stage effects.

Aside from the painfully loud set design, Barking in Essex isn’t about theatrical lighting, sound effects and overly intelligent stage design; it’s about a great cast, shameless laughs and a good dollop of blue language. It might be a little rough and raucous for some, but that’s why Barking in Essex attracts its audience; not for the prose of Shakespeare or a belting Les Mis number, but a right good laugh outside of a Channel 4 11pm show.

Think of the play what you will, but the warnings are there: Warning! This play contains bad language and scenes of criminal stupidity.

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