King’s Head Theatre, London – until 3 February 2018
Shocking, provocative and poetic. Steven Berkoff’s punchy verse play, East, has returned to its roots. No, not Bethnal Green or the Mile End Road, but the King’s Head Theatre Islington, where it made its London debut in 1975.
This funny, furious, thrilling, evocative piece is still intensely powerful with Berkoff’s wonderfully poetic language, ripe with expletives and bravura, conjuring up a raw but vivid picture of post-war East End life for the working classes. Today that image is all but forgotten in a haze of nostalgia as a tidal wave of gentrification sweeps through the once rough, tough but vibrant area of London where dockers, costermongers, tailors and market traders lived and worked.
It was inhabited by youths who were feral and untamed, living for the moment on a diet of sex, violence, Saturday nights pulling birds down the Lyceum and Sunday trips to Southend with the family. This revival, from Atticist, reminds us of Berkoff’s outstanding talent with words and his passion for his roots.
The 80-year-old bad boy of stage and screen wrote East as part of a series of verse plays that are graphic, muscular, visceral, occasionally uncomfortable to listen to and intense with emotion. In East, we meet best mates Les and Mike who bond after the former fancies the latter’s girl, the luscious Sylv.
After a brief spat they become best friends with Les pretty much adopted by Mike’s parents. And here’s a slice of East End life that is both familiar and alien to most of us. We meet Mum, usually shuffling around in her dressing gown, who spends her time watching TV and dreaming of a better life.
Instead she has the quick-tempered Dad who rants about the blacks moving in and the merits of Fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
Over a dinner of baked beans he regales the family with memories of brown shirt marches and is proud of his own lawless, violent youth.
His aggressively physical tirades occasionally border on the Alf Garnett, veering from outright bigotry to obvious pride and admiration for his own son’s growing portfolio of run-ins with the police.
Through a series of monologues each character fleshes out their part in this elegiac, rites of passage drama.
We hear about Les’s troubled past, Sylv’s longing for respect and Mum’s desperation for a bit of culture in her life.
Mike’s only ambition seems to stretch no further than deceiving Sylv with the next pull while Dad lives on past glories and denounces progress.
There’s one scene, involving Mum’s illicit liaison in a cinema, which genuinely shocks. The first night audience was genuinely aghast at its surprise denouement yet the humour of the situation outweighs the unexpected and crude bombshell casually dropped.
East’s cast offer up terrific, compelling, performances. James Craze is intense as the wide-eyed, glowering, tough-talking, bad boy Mike, who has inherited his father’s love of law-breaking and violence.
Jack Condon evokes sympathy as the weaker outsider, the desperate-to-be-liked Les, who yearns for love and acceptance.
The boys’ love interest is played by a confident Boadicea Ricketts who occasionally unnerves when she fixes her gaze on a member of the front row while looking for empathy and understanding.
Debra Penny is a hoot as the disappointed and bored Mum who longs to swap nights in with Z Cars and Hawaii Five-O for opera at Covent Garden, while Russell Barnett excels as the volatile Dad.
Jessica Lazar’s splendidly taut direction, and the play’s pared down set, focuses everyone’s attention on the action which ducks and dives from the Commercial Road, down Balls Pond Road, into the Kursaal on Southend seafront, and even dips into the tailors where Les struggles to summon up any interest in his job.
Don’t miss this unmistakably in-your-face and spirited production.
East runs at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, until February 3.
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