Writer: Steven Berkoff
Director: Jessica Lazar
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Returning to the King’s Head where it made its debut in 1975, East, Steven Berkoff’s angry and unsentimental homage to London’s East End, has lost none of its potency. Now, as then, there is a sense that the theatre’s location, in North London bordering on the East, provides the writer with a metaphor for where he wants to place his audience – as outsiders looking closely in.
The passing of more than four decades gives the play an ironic addendum. A working-class community that has adjusted to several waves of immigration, lived with organised crime and survived de-industrialisation finally faces extinction at the hands of creeping gentrification. Maybe the writer would lament many aspects of this, but nothing in his play suggests that he would not be happy to see outdated traditions wiped out.
By the 1970s, the local Palais had already been turned into a bowling alley and then into a supermarket, but Berkoff rarely touches upon Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be nostalgia. Instead, his savage and ferociously funny play sets out to expose and ridicule ugly features that he sees as endemic to the East End – violence, petty criminality, misogyny and, racism.
Both poetic and abrasive, Berkoff’s writing is pitched at a point where Shakespearean English meets Cockney Rhyming Slang. Indeed some scenes here could well allude to Henry IV Pt1, itself set partly on the fringes of the East End. However, the character of “Dad” (Russell Barnett) is much more Alf Garnett than Falstaff. A television addict who evades paying his license fee, he rants right wing mantras and recalls fondly the marches of Oswald Mosly’s Fascist Black Shirts. He is the only one of the play’s five characters that does not question the role in which life has cast him.
His wife (Debra Penny) slouches in a dressing gown, utterly defeated by a male-dominated society. The couple’s only son, Mike (James Craze) mouths expletives as if by habit or expectation and resorts instinctively to violence when his girl is wooed by the upstart Les (James Condon); but, in a rare sign of atonement in the play, the lads ask “what’s the point?”, make-up and become friends. “If you were the only girl in the world….” they sing to Sylv, played by Boadicea Ricketts as both slutty and vulnerable. She completes a quintet of outstanding performances.
Jessica Lazar’s raucous, animated production hardly gives itself time to breathe. Playing an upright “Joanna”, Carol Arnopp contributes a mix of music hall songs and contemporary tunes, serving as a backing track for most of a production in which music is integral. In mimed sequences, such as a hilarious family outing to Southend, the piano generates the feel of a silent movie; and, on a blissful escape to the M1 on a motorbike, Mike and Les begin as Hell’s Angels and morph into Flanagan and Allen singing Underneath the Arches, the modern and the traditional blending together seamlessly.
The content and the style of East could well have jolted audiences in 1975, perhaps not so much now. If Berkoff’s works still remain something of an acquired taste, this is a revival that should encourage many more to acquire it.
Runs until 3 February 2018 | Image: Alex Brenner