East is East
Ayub Khan Din
Northern Stage/Nottingham Playhouse
Though we often laugh out loud at Ayub Khan Din’s pivotal play on modern Britain’s cultural identity, this can’t disguise its uncomfortable nature; it poses questions for which there are no easy answers and asks all sides to admit realities we’d often rather not come clean on.
Strangely, for a play that confronts head-on how a Muslim family adapts (or doesn’t) to a multi-cultural society, there’s not a sign of white racial bigotry. Eight of the ten characters are Muslim of Pakistani descent and the two (female) whites have other issues to worry about.
The play is 20 years old and is familiar to most people through the 1999 film directed by Damien O'Donnell. The time is 20 years earlier. The play is set in 1970s Salford during the time of the Pakistani civil war. Its continuing relevance means it feels it could have been written last week. Located within the Khan family, the developments centre on two rising issues: the coming circumcision of young Sajit (Viraj Juneja) and the threat of arranged marriages for Tariq (Omar Malik) and Abdul (Simon Rivers).
Simmering in the background is the fact that another son, Saleem (Raj Bajaj), is secretly studying art, having wrongly informed his dad that his subject’s engineering. Plus the mother and father tensions.
Dad, George (Kammy Darweish), is an autocratic traditionalist, a rigid, occasionally violent yet deeply unhappy man unable to adapt to his new western world, brooking not the slightest challenge to his authority from his six offspring, all of whom in separate ways are evolving to become part of a different culture.
Vicky Entwhistle plays George’s wife Ella, refusing to be cowed into domination and the clashes between these two brilliantly written (and brilliantly acted) characters are at the play’s core, the mixed marriage adding spice to the already combustible situation.
The undercurrent to their frequent, often destructive clashes is their love which, along with the cement that, despite seismic differences, bonds the family, is the play’s main optimism. If all this sounds sentimental or twee, it never remotely is.
Sabrina Sandhu plays sister Meenah, eager to learn more about this more sexually liberated culture. The fifth, initially submissive but eventually rebellious son Maneer is played by Deven Modha.
The cast spent a good deal of time bonding during rehearsals, so much so, it’s difficult not to see them as real blood relatives. Judie Flynn as neighbour Auntie Annie and Rez Kabir as Mr Shah, father of the two would-be brides-to-be, complete a cast that deliver astonishing performances under Suba Das’s subtle yet pacy direction and played out on Grace Smart’s set which combines the traditional and the futuristic.
In front of a dramatic, orange block of light, a large, square, modernistic-looking revolve swivels round noiselessly to show first a domestic interior then the family’s chippy. The revolve comes to rest not end-on but to point its corners out at the audience. More pieces of set glide on and off from the wings and temporarily adhere themselves to this mothership. The whole affair seems to operate on a cushion of air, like a hovercraft. Sometimes there’s a total 360-degree revolve without words, as a visual metaphor swings round into view then passes on.
East is East contains one of modern theatre’s truly great scenes with every character on stage, as the fiercely traditional Mr Shah arrives to complete the marriage arrangements. Almost every multi-cultural problem and every theme of the play combust in these ten minutes, in turn both riotously funny and almost uncomfortably tragic. I can think of few scenes with so much emotion / humour so tightly packed.
And while the autobiographical play is often seen as centring round the young Sajit as the boyhood author buried deep in his parka and mawkish discomfort, here the parents hold the dramatic focus much more.
Small details strike home; the sons wafting away the smell of a bacon butty as the father approaches, our hostility to him weakening when the sons snigger behind his back, the small rituals of Ella offering her husband tea (always the same response, "I shall take half a cup") and overall how matters of great import are translated through the language and tensions of the family home as we the audience are educated, informed and entertained.
Cracking stuff. Don’t miss it.
Reviewer: Peter Mortimer