“I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air, they fly so high, nearly reach the sky, then like my dreams, they fade and die. Fortune’s always hiding, I’ve looked everywhere, I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air…”
I’m authentic Dagenham as In Basildon’s Ken would say. I know these words. I’ve heard them belted out from a stadium full of people. I’ve heard them cried in celebration and defiance. But it’s only when I hear them sung by the cast of In Basildon, surrounding a death bed, that I realise for the first time how desperately sad these words are. This is no song of triumph, but one of despair, a song of loss.
This apparent sense of loss envelopes David Eldridge’s new play; it punctuates every sentence and lingers in every character’s eyes. The death of Len at the beginning only serves as a reminder of the death of an East End legacy that us Essex folk desperately cling to but, in many ways, no longer have any right to. In Basildon focuses on the people Len has left behind, namely Maureen and Doreen, his two warring younger sisters.
As if to convey this family divide, director Dominic Cooke has split his audience into two factions along a transverse stage, pushing the audience into a greater awareness of boundary and location that is so important to the play. And yet, this division also serves as an embodiment of Eldridge’s ambivalence regarding his home county.
Essex is known to the world as a land of “Flash ‘Arrys,” a desperate grasp for all things material celebrated in shows such as The Only Way Is Essex with its nice cars, spray tans and designer hand bags. Eldridge conveys his despair at this over powering sense of materialism through the warring sisters whose source of conflict, the ownership of Len’s house, represents an obsession with money and possession, the new Essex. Within this new Essex, the working class Conservative is born. Gone is the sense of “Blitz spirit” that we so proudly refer to as families destroy each other through their own greed.
And yet Eldridge is also fiercely defensive of his Conservative voting working class characters, with the middle class outsider Tom working as an effective way to explore this. Tom questions the family’s departure from Labour and the value on which they place money that they allow it to tear them apart. What follows is devastating condemnation, a biting challenge to every middle class audience member, and boy there was a few, that judged the characters on that stage. In a searing performance by Peter Wight, it is left to Ken to tell Tom, simply, that he knows nothing.
For Tom has never known life without money and so he could never possibly hope to understand. To him, it may appear that the working class Conservative has turned his back on his East End legacy of poverty, and yet as the play unravels, we understand that nothing could be further from the truth. It is not the loss of these East End roots but because of them, that the characters desperately cling to their possessions. They do not embrace materialism so much as they are held prisoner by it.
For the people of Essex, their left behind poverty is a constant reminder, they are haunted by it. They may stand at Upton Park every week with their expensive season tickets and drive away in nice cars but the words are still the same. “Fortune’s always hiding, I’ve looked everywhere…”
It is not from with greed that Eldridge’s characters cling to their home but with defiance. For years they have worked and worked to pull themselves out of that poverty, they are grafters that started with nothing and built upwards. Is it any wonder then, that they protect this house so ferociously? After all, it’s only until you’ve had nothing that you appreciate having something. And until the likes of Tom have nothing, they can never understand.