Birmingham Repertory Theatre – until 25 September 2021, then National Theatre, London from 7-30 October 2021
Twenty-five years after its first performance at the Rep, Ayub Khan Din’s comedy about a British-Pakistani family in 1970s Salford returns home to Birmingham. In Iqbal Khan’s production for the Rep and National Theatre, East is East feels like both a modern classic and as fresh as a new play.
The great success of Khan Din’s play, and indeed in Khan’s production, is the utter believability of the characters. The actors gel fantastically and we are plunged immediately from the get-go into a totally credible illustration of family life. The kids squabble continually, they moan and groan at their parents, yet there is always an underlying fondness to the jibes.
We see this world through the (camera) lens of George and Ella’s youngest son, Sajit. Picked on by his siblings, misunderstood and sometimes forgotten by his parents – as the only uncircumcised boy in the family, this presents the initial catalyst for Khan Din’s skewering of cultural frictions – Sajit’s confusion and insecurity manifest in his a shabby, smelly old parka, that he wears constantly, as a comfort blanket. Noah Manzoor portrays Sajit’s wide-eyed innocence and anxiety very well, and the ubiquitous parka takes on a life of its own in the hilarious denouement.
Another stand out is Amy-Leigh Hickman, who impresses as George and Ella’s only daughter, Meenah. Strong-willed and independent, Meenah rules the roost, always having the last word over her brothers, and Hickman plays this with infectious glee. While often complaining about her parents’ rules and her dad’s insistence on embracing Pakistani traditions, her fiery temper, quick wit and impressive ability to have an answer to anything and everything, reveals an affinity with her father that is both comic and quite touching. Of all the children, Meenah appears to be the most like both her parents.
Sophie Stanton gives a lovely performance as the endearing, put-upon Ella. Her exasperation is as tangible as her fierce loyalty and devotion to her family. While perhaps often a foil to her husband and children’s more gregarious antics, Stanton makes the most of Ella’s droll one-liners.
At the centre of the play, Tony Jayawardena is a big presence as patriarch, George. He is larger than life, and often very, very funny. Jayawardena portrays George’s wild hypocrisies with hilarious credulity, whether that be his flip-flopping opinions on the partition of India and the Pakistani war, or his opinions on arranged marriage and interracial relationships. Yet, the humour underlying George’s irrationality doesn’t deprive the character of bite. As Jayawardena demonstrates, George can turn on a dime, transforming into an imposing physical threat to his family. In fact, the bursts of violence are all the more shocking because of the humour elsewhere.
Although much has changed since the 70s, the characters and issues are still recognisable. This is a play about the push and pull of home, about a sense of belonging and being betwixt and between different cultures. It’s this that much of the production’s well-played comedy and pathos derives. As the final scene reaches the heady heights of a very British cultural form, farce, George’s somewhat old-fashioned ambitions fall apart. As Abdul says in the play, he has ‘no right to tell us what our culture should be’.
Both provocative and rousing, nostalgic and contemporary, audiences can still relate to the humour and themes of East is East 25 years later. As the audience rapturously cheered at Ella telling Mr Shah to ‘Sling your bleeding hook, go on, piss off’, it’s a timely reminder that what unites us is greater than what sets us apart. This reaction to a play from a large audience is what I’ve missed about theatre during lockdown – theatre at its best, surely.
East is East plays at Birmingham Rep until 25th September before transferring to the National Theatre from 7th-30th October as part of a wider tour.
Sophie Stanton and Tony Jayawardena in East is East. Photograph: Pamela Raith