The subject of this four-hander by the seaside is the changing face of Britishness. But Stephen Cookson’s film, adapted from Steven Berkoff’s 1994 play Brighton Beach Scumbags, is marooned in a weird cultural no man’s land. Maybe its four characters – Dinah and Derek, Dave and Doreen, a brace of ageing teddy boy/girl couples on a potty-mouthed nostalgia trip to the town where they met – qualified as bleeding-edge social satire in the 90s. But in an age of inquisitional identity politics, railing against “Pakis” and “poofters”, they stand out as cancellation candidates. Even for 2005, the year to which the film is updated, it seems archaic. It’s an awkward compromise, but setting it in the present day would have meant a heavy rewrite to make these throwbacks the Ukip voters they surely would be.
Brighton takes place largely in a set of deckchairs on the seafront, like a Beryl Cook painting come to life. As the diehards chow down on burgers in closeup, Cookson lets us gorge on reams of heavily salted cockney dialogue. This grotesquerie is undeniably a great British tradition – but it’s hard to know who would revel in these caricatures today. Not fully updated in the light of 21st-century Britain, lacking the deadly irony with which Mike Leigh often shivs his characters, they feel like sour relics, even post-Brexit. The film tries to distance itself from their fag-toting antediluvianism with a couple of unconvincing plot twists. It comes over as too little too late, after indulging them for over an hour.
Apart from the 60s flashbacks and the odd cutaway to a glittering English Channel, Cookson does little to disguise Brighton’s stage origins. At least, given this inertness, it is strongly performed by the four stalwarts. Larry Lamb – once of the EastEnders parish – plays Derek with an eroded remnant of his teddy quiff; a gammon-visaged Phil Davis is the butt of everyone’s jokes as Dave; Marion Bailey bustles terrifically through Dinah’s anxiety; and Lesley Sharp’s Doreen is the one character permitted real depth. The four Ds get their trailer moment with an impromptu waltz to I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. It’s that kind of carry-on.