Thursday, 23 October 2014

Theatre review: East is East

Ayub Khan-Din's East is East is a play about British Asians that became a big crossover hit in 1997, getting made into a hit film as well. Its first major West End revival comes from Trafalgar-Still-Transformed-But-Just-How-Transformed-It-Is-Is-Becoming-Less-And-Less-Readily-Apparent, with Jamie Lloyd handing over the directing reins to Sam Yates, and Khan-Din now old enough to take on the role of George Khan, based on his own father, himself. Khan is a Pakistani man who left his wife and family behind in the 1930s to move to England, where he promptly married a new, English wife, Ella (Jane Horrocks,) and had a new family with her. They've lived in Salford ever since, and by 1971 when the play starts there's plenty of tension between George and his sons. The eldest is, he says, dead to him, having refused an arranged marriage and left to become a hairdresser. George is now more determined than ever to impose what he sees as proper Pakistani rules on his remaining five sons, and daughter Meenah (Taj Atwal.)

What was, and remains the secret of East is East's success, is its ability to get both humour and pathos out of its culture clash. That, and the universality of the family relationships that'll be particularly familiar to anyone with a multinational background: Both Christopher and I have families from England and one other country, and while neither Latvian nor Greek, respectively, cultures have superficial similarities with Pakistani culture, deeper down we both found the dynamics remarkably similar*.

Tom Scutt's design of the back of a Salford terrace is turned into the rooms of the Khan's house, the chip shop and a hospital by quickly wheeling on and off some furniture, establishing a good pace from the off, and the large family is clearly defined: Saleem (Nathan Clarke) claims to be doing an engineering course but is in fact training to be a (somewhat genital-fixated) artist, while even the most pious son, Maneer (Darren Kuppan) is starting to struggle with reconcile his father's orders with the Islam he believes in, and the twitchy youngest, Sajit (Michael Karim,) has refused to take his parka off for the last year, and may have the beginnings of a more serious mental illness.

The crux of the story though is George going behind his family's backs to arrange marriages for the eldest remaining sons, Abdul (Amit Shah) and Tariq (Ashley Kumar,) and as the story goes on it becomes increasingly about the indecisive Abdul taking responsibility for his family and the fact that his father's behaviour is getting more irrational. But in the meantime we've got the play's big comic setpiece as the Shahs (Rani Moorthy and Hassani Shapi) arrive to arrange the marriage with their terrifying daughters, and Sally Bankes gets to shine as Ella's best friend Annie, dropping in uninvited for equal parts spying and deliberate sabotage.

Setting the play in 1971 means a backdrop of brewing war between India and Pakistan, and George too explodes into levels of violence that it's implied are a new development for him. Khan-Din doesn't shy away from showing this dark side, and casting him against Horrocks, with their big difference in size, makes these scenes particularly brutal. Horrocks is the above-the-title name, and she doesn't disappoint in the lighter moments with spiky one-liners and a fierce maternal instinct, but East is East has always been an ensemble piece and Yates' production is well-balanced and funny.

East is East by Ayub Khan-Din is booking until the 3rd of January at Trafalgar Studio 1; then touring to Birmingham, Richmond and Manchester.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

*When the British-Asian comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me was on TV, my sister and I could name a Greek equivalent we knew of every recurring character. And yes, the Greek version of the "everything good is Indian" character was my dad.

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