Writer: Ayub Khan Din
Director: Suba Das
Reviewer: Dave Smith
The press night for this timely revival of Ayub Khan Din’s 1996 play, a co-production with Northern Stage, takes place a little over a week before a General Election in which Islam, immigration and Britain’s place in the world have played a leading role. That many of the issues that it raises are as relevant today as they were in 1996 is telling – in the programme notes, Khan Din tells how people thought he had rewritten it for a 2015 West End revival to make it more political (he hadn’t) – as is the fact that twenty years on it is still the only British-Asian play to receive an Olivier Award.
In 1970s Salford, Pakistan-born George Khan is trying to run both his fish and chip shop and his increasingly chaotic home life, which he shares with his English wife Ella, five teenage boys and one teenage girl. As George avidly follows the progress of the war between East and West Pakistan, while at the same time trying to arrange marriages for two of his sons, it becomes clear that his idea of how proper Muslim wives and children should behave is not shared by the rest of his family.
The eldest son, Nazir, has already left home rather than be married off against his will, Saleem (Raj Bajaj) is actually doing a Foundation Art course rather than the Engineering course his father thinks he is, Tariq (Omar Malik) considers himself wholly English, even using the word ‘Paki’ to describe his father and his ilk, the foul-mouthed Meenah (Sabrina Sandhu, another promising graduate of Nottingham’s Television Workshop) is not, and never will be, anything like a good Muslim daughter, while the youngest son Sajit (Viraj Juneja) has retreated into an increasingly smelly parka (and occasionally the coalshed) in an attempt to hide from the conflict going on around him. Only the steady Abdul (Simon Rivers) and the religious Maneer (Deven Modha) – nicknamed Gandhi by his siblings – come even close to being the sort of sons George can be proud of.
While Kammy Darweish and Vicky Entwistle (as George and Ella Khan respectively) are the nominal ‘stars’, in the end the success or failure of the play rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the younger members of the cast. It’s their sibling banter and the way they react to their increasingly violent father, keeping the laughs going even as the story becomes darker and more uncomfortable, that needs to be believable and to carry the audience with them.
That they succeed so completely is testament not only to their own abilities as actors but equally to director Suba Das, who manages to ensure that a very inexperienced cast stays on top of a script that contains difficult subject matter, some cracking jokes and even a bit of good old-fashioned British farce.
The whole thing looks good, too, with set and costume designer Grace Smart having clearly had some fun recreating a typical 70s living room, complete with flying ducks and some eye-watering wallpaper, which forms one half of a clever and well-considered revolving set that goes from home to chip shop and back again as required.
East Is East is a rare piece of work in that is possibly more challenging and more relevant now than it was when it was first written. That it is playing so close to the election is of course coincidental, the whole thing had been planned well before Theresa May so recently decided to go to the country; but that it is being revived at a time when immigration and the way Muslims fit into British society are more up for discussion than at any time since the 1970s is surely not.
First and foremost, East Is East is funny. But large parts of it will also be hugely uncomfortable for many, and not just for the scenes of domestic abuse that arrive shockingly at odds with the mostly humorous tale beforehand. Out of this mix, Ayub Khan Din, Suba Das and the whole cast have managed to create a solid evening’s entertainment that manages to contain just the right balance.
Runs until 10 June 2017 | Image: Northern Stage