When did Essex become sexy? The much-maligned county that sits on the northern edge of the Thames Estuary and beyond the fringes of East London has long been synonymous with all that is tacky and end-of-the-pier. Yet now, more than ever, Essex seems to be everywhere, with its cheeky-chappy cook Jamie Oliver (Clavering near Stansted) going Stateside on his school-dinners soapbox, its relentlessly ebullient X Factor rejects 2 Shoes (Romford) giving way to bona fide pop stars Jessie J (Romford) and Olly Murs (Witham) pumping out of every gym. And of course there is the omnipresent dramality cast of The Only Way Is Essex (known affectionately to its fans as TOWIE), whose very title proclaims at once the county's singularity and its predilection for homogeneity.
My family moved from East London to Essex when I was 15 and I hated the place, always feeling it lacked the urban charm and street credibility of places like Hackney and even Stratford. Its largely white working-class population saw themselves as having made it, the nouveau riche that became the raw material for Mike Leigh's landmark social satire Abigail's Party, where the monstrous Beverly (Alison Steadman) traded Twiglets and Demis Roussos for the devastatingly seductive but ultimately unattainable nirvana that was middle-class acceptance.
I got out as soon as I could, escaped to university and tried never to look back. Going home at Christmas, I knew I was in Essex as soon as I saw the tracksuit - a kind of ubiquitous uniform worn by all generations for all possible eventualities. Essex wasn't just a place, it was a state of mind - it was the land of the working class made good, of flashy cars on newly laid drives, of West Ham United season-ticket holders, and a political vision of a world that believed that a Protestant work ethic and upholding family values more than justified an existence that was right-wing, xenophobic and fetishistically materialistic.
Playwrights and their plays have tended to fare much better at articulating the underbelly of Essex life than other forms of popular culture (although Andrea Arnold's film Fish Tank (2009) is a noticeable exception). In the 1990s, for example, Rebecca Prichard's first play Essex Girls (1994) provided more pathos and humour than TV sitcoms such as Birds of a Feather (1989-98), which set Essex life in an almost pre-feminist world whose desperate housewives Sharon, Tracey and Dorien found that suburban splendour was no cure for a lack of gentlemen callers. And while contemporary popular culture has revelled in Essex's tawdry attachment to the accoutrements of a spray-tanned and vajazzled existence, the playwright David Eldridge has constantly mined his home county for psychologically rich, dramatic material.
His first play, Serving It Up (1996), was set in East London, and his work thereafter (most notably Market Boy (2006) for the National Theatre) has mirrored the Essex-bound trail of what the remaining white working-class East Enders refer to as the runaways - suburban settlers who return to the homeland only to watch a weekend West Ham match. This week, he trawls once more through the bottom drawer of Essex life as he places us In Basildon for the opening of his third play for the Royal Court Theatre (until 24 March), which also coincides with the publication of a second collection of his plays by Methuen.
Basildon is a post-war new town that, unlike its more affluent neighbours Billericay and Brentwood, has suffered more than its fair share of urban decline. It is also the site of the recent Dale Farm eviction, where the leader of Basildon Council appeared to make successful inroads into the traveller community's stronghold over a small patch of Essex turf. Interestingly, although the Dale Farm imbroglio is not a topic addressed by Eldridge in his play, the tensions around property and ownership are very much brought to the fore as the means through which an Essex family is torn apart over the generations.
In Basildon tells the story of two sisters - Maureen and Doreen - whose lives have taken different paths but, despite a horrific mutual antipathy, remain inextricably linked through their relationship with their brother Len. The play begins with the sisters being brought together, having not spoken for 20 years, as Len edges closer to death. Doreen has a son, Barry, an affable character whose job as a plumber appears to be under threat from the perceived influx of cheaper East European immigrants.
Barry's apparent lack of success in life - he still lives on a Basildon estate with his wife Jackie - is set against that of Maureen's daughter Shelley. A teacher with a naive playwright boyfriend, Shelley has bettered herself with both an education and a flat in Walthamstow, East London. Whereas once self-improvement meant moving out of the metropolis into Essex, the traffic now appears to be running the other way - something the rest of Shelley's extended family find difficult to comprehend.
Cousins Barry and Shelley come to symbolise two sides of an Essex life that is far from the nightclubs, tanning salons and shopping malls of TOWIE. Barry is a plodding peacemaker who plays it safe and aspires to buy a house in which he and Jackie can finally start a family. Shelley, meanwhile, finds the absurd romanticism of her boyfriend Tom - who longs to get all Essex and proletarian - patronising and wants to maintain the psychological fences she has built on the Essex/London boundary. But the cousins' mutual acceptance and even strong affection for each other is in stark contrast to their warring mothers, for whom the years have had no impact in attenuating a feud that goes deep and remains raw.
The town of Basildon turns out to be a rich canvas on which Eldridge can explore a range of issues about family life, human geography and the choices and constraints that affect where and how we live our lives. That much of the plot veers towards the (anti-)climactic reading of Len's will, and a final coda that presents perhaps an unwarranted and reductive reveal, are forgivable despite the play's two and a half hours' running time, because through all of this the paradoxical warmth and ambivalence of Eldridge to Basildon remains a touching and enduring constant.
In a play whose chief preoccupation is the occupation of physical space, the boldest move is contributed by set designer Ian MacNeil, who places the audience on two sides of the Royal Court's main stage - like two warring sides at a family wedding. The audience not only see the Basildon home of Len where the plot unfolds but also, literally through this, themselves or a mirror of themselves. We are asked to look at and examine both Basildon and our own reactions to it, where the stage marks out a liminal divide or chasm between ourselves.
If the recent resurgence of Essex in popular culture serves as an indicator that the British public can celebrate and embrace its tackiest and kitschiest characters as long as they retain the important celebrity marker of wealth, Eldridge's play is a timely reminder that there is another side to Essex completely. That he appears to remain ultimately conflicted about the county and its people is a sentiment I can share. Like Shelley in the play, those who have moved away and gone to university can view Essex with a certain horror, but ultimate separation remains an impossibility, as it would be a separation from one's very self.