The first thing to say about the Royal Court's latest offering on its main stage is 'why have they put the stage in the middle of the theatre?' They did something similar for Sucker Punch, a year or so ago, a play set in a boxing club and it worked really well. The ring was in the middle with the audience on two sides so it felt like you were at a boxing match.
A play set in someone's front room doesn't need to be staged in the same way. What it means is that for key speeches, such as the reading of a will, half the audience are watching the back of the character delivering said reading.
It adds nothing to what is a really good play, a really good play that would also be even better with a bit of script pruning.
The story starts in the living room of the Basildon home of Len (Phil Cornwell) where friends and family have gathered around his deathbed. It brings together Len's best friend Ken (Peter Wight) and warring sisters Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and Doreen (Linda Bassett) as well as nephews, nieces and neighbours.
As Len passes bitter feuds escalate and with the approaching will reading it seems everyone wants something and motives aren't all they seem to be.
This is a play about 'fahm-ily' and looking out for each other, the central irony being that everyone is really looking out for themselves. David Eldridge's crackling script deftly weaves the sadness of loss with belly laughs. The problems lie in the pacing. It takes a a little while to get into its stride but soon had the audience on tenterhooks with the interval curtain falling on a bombshell.
And then, after what you think is a dramatic denouement or close to it, comes a complete change of pace with a final act going back in time to explain the source of Doreen and Maureen bitter enmity. It doesn't carry quite the same level of wit or drama of the preceding act and basically feels like it goes on a bit too long. The audience started getting fidgety, myself included. Its revelation while adding a deal of interesting perspective feels a little flat after all the drama.
It's a shame because if the play's 2 hours and 10 minutes running time (plus a 20 minute interval) was trimmed by say 10-15 minutes I'd have probably given it five stars.
Extraneous script to one side, the acting is superb. It felt like such a treat to see Sheen on the stage again and together with Bassett, Wight and an unrecognisable Wendy Nottingham as neighbour Pam, this felt like it had the subtleties and humour of a Mike Leigh play x3. I must also mention Lee Ross who plays nephew Barry and who does an excedingly fine job of looking grief-stricken for much of the first scene. So I'm going to give it four stars.
In Basildon runs at the Royal Court Downstairs until March 24.
Thought I was going to have to rely on various Royal Court connections through Romolai Garai for this until I remembered that the wonderful Ruth Sheen was in Leaves of Glass with Mr W back in 2007.