EAST IS EAST AT THE NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE, BIRMINGHAM Theatre Run: Tuesday 13 - Saturday 17 January 2015 Performance Reviewed: Wednesday 14 January (Press Night) Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
At the risk of going there, it’s something of a charged time to be experiencing a show like East is East, given the recent political and social bubbling over the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. As every Tom, Dick and armchair Harry attempts to define and dictate what Islam is and Muslims are, the answer, it seems, lies in a show set in a British Muslim household in the early 1970’s, based on a 1990’s film of the same name. It’s startling, and in a strange way quite refreshing, seeing how timeless and cyclical some of the central issues and themes are.
Mercifully,East is Eastremains confidently self-contained, and whilst granted there are the odd throwaway inferences of a ‘them versus us’ mentality to the wider British population, generally this is a show predominantly centred on a Muslim, Pakistani family dealing with a slew of issues and problems both religious and familial within and of itself. It’s infinitely more focused and compelling as a result, as proud, principled business owner George Khan (Ayub Khan Din, writer of both the play and the film) struggles to accept the changing times, personified in his six spirited, wilful and frequently disobedient children. Regimented, stubborn and fiercely proud, Khan is a skilfully written and masterfully played character - at times an aggressive, blindly ignorant borderline-tyrant, at others a whimsical, charming family man evidently trying to do best by both his family and religion in the way he has been raised and taught to do so. Neither extremity is painted as absolute, and in many ways Khan’s plight is the shows most compelling and touching thread, especially in this production. As he sits transfixed in front of his TV following the ensuing Indian-Pakistan civil war crises, a reporter cites ‘Pakistan will never be the same again’, and the analogy couldn’t be clearer. It’s the Pakistan of Khan’s home, head and heart that are just as much under attack, by the modernity and will of his own children, as any affairs on foreign soils.
‘With Muslims, we are all the same, nobody is different,’ it’s a passionate plea that becomes more a sad lament as Khan is forced to open his eyes to how different his own family actually are from him.
Caught between father and children is Jane Horrock’s long-suffering wife and mother Ella, who has already gone through the ordeal of her eldest leaving home and being disowned due to his defiance of his fathers will (opting to become a hairdresser!) and the stigma that comes from being a white, British wife of a Pakistani man with a previous marriage back home. Horrocks plays the role with conviction and plenty of levity, particular highlights being her regularly putting the world to rights and bemoaning the family problems with friend and co-worker Annie (a fantastic Sally Bankes, commanding great presence and comic timing). In the second Act in particular, events fluctuate from the intensely dramatic to comically absurd at the drop of the hat, as George attempts to marry two of his sons of to a wealthy visiting business associate. Horrocks navigates the U-turns and sharp changes in tone with aplomb, handling both the laughs and gasps with confidence.
The Khan offspring are something of a mixed bunch, but mercifully are each well-defined and distinctive as characters. Meenah (understudy Deepal Parmar in the performance reviewed) is a feisty teenage girl who would rather wear jeans and a t-shirt instead of a sari, whilst facing accusations of ‘looking like a prostitute’ for simply wearing her school uniform. College student Saleem (Nathan Clarke) is an aspiring artist having to uphold the masquerade of being a student engineer, Maneer (Darren Kuppan) is the more dutiful, religious and empathetic son, whilst ladies man Tariq (Ashley Kumar) and eldest remaining Abdul (Amit Shah) are facing the prospect of impending arranged engagements against their wishes. The tension, conflict and at times toxic nature of the family unit has manifested itself in the form of the youngest, Sajit (Michael Karim) aka ‘Twitch’, named after his nervous disposition, who hides himself away behind an oversized, zipped up parka coat at all times to hide from the unpleasantness around him. Of the six, Clarke, Kuppan and Kumar give the strongest performances by some measure, but as mentioned they are all well realised and rounded characters.
As the Khan brood frustratedly debate in the family chip shop whether they are Pakistani, ‘Eurasian’ or ‘Anglo-Indian’, and each in one way or another find themselves growing increasingly apart from and jaded by their fathers views and life plans, it becomes clear they simply want to be. Yes, religion and the ‘Pakistani way’ are regularly cited as the tentpole for Khan’s fierce principles, and they are certainly the germ of his discontent, but as the play progresses it becomes clear this is just as much a study of one generations alienation with the next, a fathers inability to relinquish control, and the dividing force children can become between their parents, and it makes the overall exploration all the more intriguing and universal as a result.
The production, touring after it’s critically acclaimed run at Trafalgar Studios as part of their latest ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season, boasts slick production values, particularly in its suitably claustrophobic set design by Tom Scutt which magnifies the focus on and tension between the family as a splintered unit. And for all of the heavier issues and parables of a broken home,East is Eastis a show which casts plenty of light with its shade, and for each moment of violence or tension, there are at least half a dozen genuine, organic laugh-out-loud moments to ensure nobody takes it all tooseriously.
It may not re-invent the wheel, but let’s face it, George wouldn’t approve of such a radical idea anyway… unless, of course, his engineer of a son Saleem was given the job, of course. It is, however, poignant, affecting and resonant on a number of levels, whilst still offering plenty of laughs. East is East remains a highly effective slice of theatre, and indeed Britishtheatre at that, that mercifully has the confidence to not use religion as either excuse or punch-bag, but rather gradually dismisses it in favour of focus on the people and characters on stage and their own shortcomings and conflicts. It is amplified considerably by strong central performances and an overall maturity and respect for both subject matter and audience that few mainstream productions of its calibre afford.
Something of a cult classic that remains both surprisingly relevant and easily recommendable.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
EAST IS EAST is running at the NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE, Birmingham, from Tuesday 13 to Saturday 17 January 2015. The tour then continues to Richmond at the Richmond Theatre and Manchester at the Manchester Opera House.
CLICK HERE for more information on the show's run at the New Alexandra Theatre and to book your own tickets!
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