Thursday 13 November 2014

Theatre Review: East Is East (Trafalgar Studios)

I hadn’t really planned on catching Sam Yates’s revival of East is East, which is being produced as part of this year’s Trafalgar Transformed season. But an unexpected opportunity to see the show arose and I found myself wending my way over to Trafalgar Studios on Tuesday night. I couldn’t be happier that I did. Ayub Khan Din’s play, based on his own experiences as the son of a Pakistani father and a British mother in Salford in the 1970s, debuted in 1996 to much acclaim  and was filmed (with decidedly mixed results) by Damien O’Donnell in 1999. (It’s also one of the first plays that I was assigned to teach ten years ago.) 

Though often perceptive in its portrait of a family caught between cultural traditions, the piece isn’t without its flaws, but it remains an important work with strong audience appeal. And it’s hard to imagine seeing the play better served than it is by Yates’s punchy yet sensitive and perfectly pitched production.   
Another striking set – evoking the interior and exterior of cramped terraced housing – by the ever-inventive Tom Scutt helps, as does a great sound design by the equally distinctive Alex Baranowski. But most important of all are the nuances that Yates and the cast find in the material, subtleties that were almost entirely absent from O’Donnell’s overly broad, cartoonish screen version.
Elements of soap and sitcom do remain, especially in the final scene, a funny yet slightly problematic set-piece that pushes the play into full-tilt farce with the inopportune appearance of a model vagina. But the production is also alert to the subtler tones of Khan Din’s writing and communicates them in a way that ensures that the family’s arguments and alliances, its tensions and sudden turns into tenderness, really resonate.

The plot pivots around two main events – a belated circumcision and a double arranged engagement – that feel a tad contrived. But, as in the director’s superb production of J.B. Priestley’s Cornelius, there’s terrific attention to detail here that pays dividends: whether it’s Jane Horrocks’ Ella and Sally Barnes’ (wonderful) Auntie Annie gossiping with gleeful morbidity over local deaths and suicides, or the exhilaration of an illicit bop in the family’s chip shop. 

There’s an extra frisson to the production, too: the fact that Khan Din himself is taking on the role of George, the tyrannical patriarch closely inspired by his own father. Whatever degrees of catharsis or torment Khan Din might be going through in playing the part there’s no denying that he excels in it, not stinting in showing George’s cruelty and hypocrisy (which has seen one son flee the family nest) yet also locating a core of sadness and loss in the character that is, nonetheless, never sentimentalised.
He’s beautifully matched by Horrocks: fag almost perpetually in hand, and teetering captivatingly between doll-like vulnerability and defiance as she suffers the violence of her spouse yet proves unable to resist puncturing his flagrant romanticising of his homeland. The actress’s quirky intonation ensures that a line as innocuous as “Where’s that Meenah with them biscuits?”, delivered in the white heat of a social gathering about to go spectacularly off the rails, becomes a comic gem.
Playing the kids caught in the cultural cross-fire there are terrific turns from Michael Karim as Sajit (snuggling into a pongy Parka as both armour and comfort blanket), Taj Atwal as the sparky Meenah, Darren Kuppan as the toeing-the-line Maneer, Nathan Clarke’s art student Saleem, Ashley Kumar’s playboy Tariq and Amit Shah’s passive Abdul, with the dynamics of sibling rough-and-tumble perfectly caught. And the skilful Rani Moorthy and Hassani Shapi also maximise their impact as the family’s prospective in-laws, amusingly preening themselves on their social standing yet also adding important contours to the play’s exploration of immigrant experiences.
The quality of the performances and the attention to atmosphere ensures that the production retains the savour of a particular time and place while also gesturing outwards, generously, to conflicts that are relatable to all. Highly recommended.
The production is booking until January 3rd. Further information, including details of irresistibly bargainous £15 Mondays, here.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. It is a terrific production.