Churchill Theatre, Bromley– until 11 July 2015
A story about identity, packaged as a comedy but addressing some very real and hard-hitting issues, East is East is a slick production. Simon Nagra’s George Khan is a Pakistani immigrant, a staunch Muslim married to a Salford woman and the father of seven children. The play captures the life of his family as he does everything he can to cling on to his heritage and culture and we witness just how difficult this is.
The story will resonate with many British Asians (and indeed anyone who feels that they are juggling roles and responsibilities), as the struggles of aligning two very difficult worlds – the home and family, alongside the external environment in which they exist – are played out.
Khan Din’s use of the seven children is a clever tool, enabling the audience to see a range of differing attitudes. Among the six we find a devout Muslim, a college student, an artist (albeit unbeknownst to his father), the rebellious child and the son who has become a hairdresser, consequentially being disowned by George Khan.
The cast is excellent – bursting with energy, although keenly attuned to the challenges of their characters’ identities. Salma Hoque is a delight as the only daughter of the house, playing out the juxtaposition of East meets West effortlessly, as she switches between being the foul-mouthed and outspoken sister, with being the dutiful daughter who makes and serves the tea and who will wear a sari when necessary.
Pauline McLynn as Ella Khan, the mother who loves George and her children – all seven of them – conveys her own conflicts beautifully. The audience roots for her throughout and wills her to protect her children from George’s decisions, by going beyond to pick up the pieces afterwards.
The concept of familial love lies at the heart of this tale and, as it candidly demonstrates, the differing ways of displaying this love. The siblings bicker and pull no punches towards each other, but when their unity and happiness is threatened, they face these pressures together. George Khan evolves as an interesting character, with a couple of moments where he shows weakness and a possible disgust for himself. Yet it is difficult to feel much empathy for a man who is such a bully to his family.
There is a perceptive social commentary on offer too, as the play touches upon racism, domestic violence and poverty – the latter also cleverly suggested through Tom Scutt’s set design.
Set against the backdrop of the Partition, as Pakistan was split off from India at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives the events of the times are closely followed by George Khan, as snippets from news broadcasts are played out.
In today’s world where religion is vilified and native cultures can gradually be eroded or assimilated – often willingly – East is East has a contemporary relevance. A complex concept, worth exploring.
Plays at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley until 11th July, then tours
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar