East Is East
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Like a lot of writers' first plays, Ayub Khan-Din's East is East is based very closely on his own life, as he was the seventh of ten children of a Pakistani chip shop owner and his English wife in Salford, Manchester. The writer admits that many of the events in the play actually happened in his family, and that in writing the play he was trying to understand his father's motives for the way he brought his children up. The play won numerous awards following its original run in Birmingham, Stratford East and the West End, and the 1999 film version went on to win more awards.
The play is an amusing but often uncomfortable look at the clash of cultures from a mixed marriage resulting in mixed-race children brought up in Western society with mostly Western values and aspirations. It does not shy away from issues such as domestic violence, forced marriage and a few racist comments by the children about their own father's culture.
The Octagon's production is actually a co-production with York's Theatre Royal; in fact as it is directed by the Theatre Royal's artistic director Damian Cruden and had a run in York before coming to Bolton, it is more the Royal's production than the Octagon's.
Laura McEwen's set design consists of two huge gold picture frames, one framing the stage floor and one framing a large gauze that forms the back wall of the stage for most of the play. As these frames are such a dominant feature of an abstract design, one would think that they symbolised some huge theme at the heart of the play. This is not the case, and the significance of gold picture frames to the story does not appear until towards the end of the play. In front of the gauze, the stage is dominated by a large staircase that is sometimes moved backwards and forwards by the cast, which helps to divide the stage during split scenes, but is so large and cumbersome that it restricts the stage space quite significantly.
The production has some awkward staging at times, with actors blocking one another or turning their backs to the audience for no apparent positive reason. There are links between scenes to help smooth the transitions, using composer Ivan Stott's clever fusion of Western pop music and Eastern traditional music, which sometimes work and sometimes go on for too long. The production really picks up, however about halfway through the second half in the build-up to the arrival of Mr Shah - the father of two girls to whom George Khan wants to marry two of his sons - and it manages to keep up the pace and the humour until the end of the play.
Janys Chambers manages to put across the strength of the mother Ella in coping with the demands of her husband and her unruly brood, but her accent is a little difficult to place. As her husband, George, Marc Anwar does not seem wholly comfortable in the role, but then he was a late replacement in the York production. Sarah Parks has created a wonderfully loud and raucous but warm character as Auntie Annie - when she enters the scene with Mr Shah (also well-played by Aftab Sachak) it is obvious she is going to put her foot in it and the whole audience is just waiting to cringe when it happens. As the children, John Afzal, Damian Asher, Adam Deacon, Davood Ghadami, Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi and Chris Nayak all create nice individual characters and work well together, although the playfulness between the siblings that worked so well in the original production occasionally looks a little forced in this one.
This is an entertaining play in a production that certainly has some good moments, and ends on a funny high note to leave the audience reasonably satisfied. While this falls short of the standard we usually expect from the Octagon, this co-production seems to be mostly out of their hands.
"East is East" runs until 19 November 2005
Reviewer: David Chadderton