Essex playwright takes Basildon to Royal theatre

Echo: David Eldridge David Eldridge

HIS last play was set in the leafy, upper-middle class suburbs of Islington, its lens focused on a tiny cast and the intricate workings of the relationship between mother, daughter, sister and the terrible destruction addiction wreaks on them.

But with David Eldridge’s latest play, In Basildon, which opens at the Royal Court Theatre, in London, next week, the Romford-born playwright has gone back to his Essex roots.

London’s “coolest theatre” will play host to a sprawling Basildon family in a piece that examines their lives against the background of the town’s politics.

Its well-known reputation as a political predictor, or bellwether town, inspired David to turn his gaze on Basildon for the much-anticipated work. With previews this week, the curtain officially goes up on February 22.

David explains: “I was really interested in Basildon as a bellwether constituency, that was a really interesting context for the play. I was really interested in writing about a family who have fallen out over money, as the new Government takes to power in 2010.

“The very last act goes back to 1992, the day after John Major won an unexpected victory for the Conservatives – the Tories knew they’d won when Basildon was won.”

The play is something of a Chekovian family drama, spanning three generations and centred on the outcome of a will. There is also another familiar face involved as Leigh comedian and actor Phil Cornwell takes on the central role of Len.

The action follows Len’s family as they gather at his deathbed to say their final farewells. His two sisters fell out over money and they’ve not spoken for nearly 20 years, his nephew’s trying for a baby – and a bigger house – and his best mate Ken has memories of Bas Vegas from when it was just a village.

“It’s a family drama,” says David. “The story hinges on the death of this guy Len and the history of the family.

“The fact Len’s dying brings the family together again and the constant issue is why they fell out over money, because everyone wants to know what’s happening to the house he lived in and the money.”

Despite its serious tone, it’s shot through with plenty of humour as David untangles the relationships and complications of the family.

He explains: “The play explores the story with pathos, but with humour as well. There are lots of colourful characters.”

Growing up in Romford, David’s love affair with theatre began with a school trip to see King Lear. He followed it up by studying English literature and drama at the University of Exeter. There he penned his first play, Serving It Up, after struggling to find anything he wanted to direct.

“I didn’t initially want to be a writer,” he admits. “When I went to uni I wanted to be a director, that was really important to me.

“I couldn’t find anything I wanted to direct and it occurred to me I needed to write my own play. It was one of those things in life, where I discovered I could do something just by doing it.”

He took a playwriting module and Serving It Up marked his debut when it was put on by the Bush Theatre – opening on his 22nd birthday. It was onwards and upwards from there, as he made the transition from “one to watch” to “one of the most prominent UK playwrights of modern times”. He admits: “Like a lot of writers, it’s not a job where you can have a career plan. You just write the next one and hope it’s better than the last.”

He adds: “You would have to ask someone else what they think of the plays. I always try to do something different.”

In Basildon isn’t the first play David has set in his home county. In Market Boy, Romford market provided the setting. It was where the playwright used to work himself in his teens. He says he seeks inspiration both home and away for his plays.

“I tend to go home for a play and then go away for a play,” he says.

David’s perspective as an Essex boy who no longer lives in the county gave him a bittersweet view of Basildon – which he knows well, as he has family living in the town.

“It’s complicated for me,” he explains. “I’m someone who’s gone away, so when you leave a place sometimes your feelings can be quite complicated.

“One of the things that’s really good about being a playwright is you can explore some of those complicated feelings in the drama. I think by and large Essex is quite a Conservative county. I’m like the only Guardian reader in the family.

“Sometimes I can feel like a fish out of water when I’m home, but then on the other hand home is where the heart is and another part of me wants to celebrate and honour the place I come from – and love.”

Knot of the Heart, which David wrote specifically for actor Lisa Dillon, ran to critical accolades at the Almeida last year, with Michael Billington at the Guardian giving it four stars and Charles Spencer at the Telegraph calling it “superb” and describing it as “the most painful and persuasive account of addiction I have ever encountered”.

In Basildon opens at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London, on February 22, having opened to previews this week.

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