Octagon Theatre, Bolton – until 14 April 2018
Guest reviewer: Karen Clough
Ayub Khan Din’s 1996 play, based on his own experience of growing up in a multicultural family, tells of the conflict around values, belonging and identity that characterised his youth. Set in Salford in the 1970s, yet no doubt full of current relevance, East is East follows the struggles of each family member in negotiating their place in the home and in the community.
Quintessentially Northern mother, Ella Khan (Jane Hazlegrove), strives to raise her family in the face of prejudice and ignorance and the unrealistic expectations of her husband, George (Kulvinder Ghir). Misguided, hypocritical, tyrannical, though well-intentioned, George wants his children to grow up as model Pakistani Muslims. He hasn’t reckoned for their identification with British youth and Western culture and their desire for choice.
The story follows his attempts to impose Pakistani tradition on his children, to fit with a culture not entirely their own, culminating in a family battle around arranged marriage plans for his sons. Ella has her work cut out to fight her children’s corner, accommodate her husband’s wishes and find a way to keep the peace.
Within a script and performance filled with so many well-crafted characters, Hazlegrove’s portrayal of Ella is a show-stealer for me. She authentically captures Ella’s earthy North Manchester, working-class resolve and spirit. Ghir’s pig-headed George and Claire Hackett’s look-on-the-bright-side Auntie Anne are fabulous, as are the passionate portrayals of the individual and often-boisterous Khan children (Uzair Bhatti, Jatinder Shera, Akshay Gulati, Shila Iqbal, Mitesh Soni).
It’s visually era-authentic. The set (Amanda Stoodley) complements the Octagon’s round perfectly to give fly on the wall access to life in the Khan family home. Quick set and lighting (Aideen Malone) changes transform it into the family chip shop, which works smoothly enough in a small stage space.
On a foundation of comedy and juxtaposed family dynamics, the story regularly reminds us of issues which are no laughing matter. Domestic violence, racism, Islamophobia, class and chauvinism themes run deep and regularly jolt the audience into harsh realities. Serious issues and strong sentiment are surrounded by humour, without detracting from characters’ frustrations, abuses or hardships – Khan Din doesn’t try to sugar-coat the message, but doesn’t let it overshadow themes of humanity and hope either. This warts-and-all style and relatability of themes to today’s society give East is East ongoing appeal.
This is a lively, provocative and heartening classic, written, performed and re-created (Ben Occhipinti) with charm and brutal honesty.