Steven Berkoff’s East
Room 5064 Productions
Kings Arms, Salford
It seems almost sacrilegious for a theatre company from the North West to stage Steven Berkoff’s East, a play closely associated with the East End of London.
However, despite incorporating the name of the author into the title, Room 5064 Productions shows no signs of being intimidated by the famous material stamping their own imprint onto the play from the opening. Rather than the gangster bling suggested by the text, the five members of the cast are dressed in uniform white, signifying either they got lost on their way to Old Trafford cricket ground or are stuck in limbo looking back on their lives and considering their future, or lack thereof.
Mum (Dale Vicker) and Dad (Luke Richards) have seen the best of their times and now regard each other with disgust and wallow in morbid nostalgia. Their sons Mike (Adam Gardiner) and Les (man of the match Josh Fyson stepping in as a last-minute replacement and coping admirably with a complex script concealed within the Daily Express) do not appreciate they are in danger of repeating the pointless mistakes of their parents.
They court Sylv (Roisin McCusker) in the only way they know: attracting her attention by fighting. Sylv admits to being flattered, even aroused, by the violence but wishes she could behave as recklessly as a bloke without being judged as a woman. Her misgivings suggest she might be the only character capable of moving on from her East End neighbourhood.
Although the stage is set for confrontation—the cast assertively facing the audience—director Liam Grunshaw sets the mood of a night down the pub, albeit one where the audience is uncomfortably compelled to listen to the intimate secrets of the characters.
Grunshaw’s highly physical production uses extensive mime to draw out both the themes of the play and unexpected comedy. Even a funfair ride on the dodgems has an undertone of violence. The cast regularly interrupt a monologue with the terse instruction to bugger off. In accordance with the text, the role of Mum is played by a man in drag, but Dale Vicker’s lascivious movements push the character into full comic grotesque. Mum is very much mutton dressed as, well, mutton.
The play is written in grandiose Shakespearian pastiche, which is enhanced to comic level by the exaggerated mimes. Adam Gardiner steals the show with some remarkable contortions, twisting his body like a mutant praying mantis, and generally acting as a parody of a macho hardman.
Although there is a high level of violence in the play, it is ridiculed rather than romanticised. The physically imposing Luke Richards nostalgically recalls a rare instance when violence could be said to be justified—the Battle of Cable Street—only to reveal the idiot family was on the wrong side of the argument supporting the fascist Blackshirts.
Steven Berkoff’s East takes a refreshingly audacious approach to a classic text to give a compelling evening. Now we know their names, and now readers know about a production which should not be missed.
Reviewer: David Cunningham