East is East – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: Ayub Khan Din

Director: Iqbal Khan 

Imagine an England where chicken tikka masala hadn’t been invented? Where a coal strike wasn’t a footballer’s game-changing shot at goal. Where the Cadbury’s Smash wok-head aliens were trained to laugh by driving an Austin Allegro. Where Kung Fu might still be innocently mistaken for a Vesta Chinese curry? Enoch Powell’s threatened ‘rivers of blood’.

East is East and West is West and the white one (predominantly) George Khan has chosen. A Pakistani immigrant called George? The legacy of British Colonialism resonates with his obsession with the latest news reports on the Kashmir border skirmishes. No change there then. This 25th Anniversary revival of Ayub Khan Din’s original play, subsequently a 1999 box-office movie hit, has been given the benefit of a lavish, technical make-over. Suspended digital screens in the form of individual film celluloid clips project changing images of the contemporary North West urban landscape. The inference being that they are observed through the Polaroid viewfinder of the Parka-wearing teenage coal-shed recluse, Sajit. His imminent, Khitan ritualised circumcision seems to his siblings more a matter of jocular resignation than outrage. George’s house, George’s rules.

For all the affectionately nostalgic recollections of the play’s subsequent comedy-drama cinematic success, through whatever prism contemporary audiences view this revival, George, the patriarchal chip-shop don of Salford, is a belligerent, hypocritical wife-beater. His strangulated pidgin Lancs/Pakistani/English patois, peppered with liberal swearing, elicits much laughter but has an equally converse unsettling sense of an  It Ain’t Half Hot Mum anachronistic stereotype.

Taken at face value this Spring And Port Wine meets Coronation Street in 1970s Salford is a black-eyed, through the key-hole domestic bitter-sweet comedy of family ill-manners and adolescent rebellion. Sophie Stanton’s contained, matriarchal authority as Ella, George’s wife is outstanding.

George, played with commanding, bombastic bonhomie by Tony Jayawardena, wants to raise his family the proper Pakistani way but hasn’t counted on the distractions of hormonal anarchy. Abdul and Tariq aren’t ready to be married off, Saleem is pushing artistic boundaries, Meenah’s skirt is too short and Sajit just wants to hide in his parka. Can mum Ella keep the family together? Resigned to George’s rules it appears she will. The once arranged marriage escapee, Nazir, returns to rally his siblings, emphasising the respect and obedience they must show to their father following the pivotal scene in which the condescending Mr Shah presents his daughter/wives to be. Its slap-stick, farce-about-face comedy authenticity has a dated, hollow, wedding-bell ring to it. Given the seismic events in Afghanistan lately, laughter in the shadow of militarised patriarchal misogyny, has an uncomfortable resonance. A time-capsule, guilty pleasure defined by its era, recommended for whatever reasons suit.

Runs until 25 September 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

A time-capsule, guilty pleasure

The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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