Writer: Ayub Khan Din
Director: Sam Yates
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Ayub Khan Din’s autobiographical play East is East is heading for its 20th anniversary next year with this touring production of the Trafalgar Studios’ recent revival. For most of the audience, it may be their first experience with the story in play form, with many having maybe seen the exemplary 1999 film adaptation. It is no small comfort that director Sam Yates has crafted an onstage experience that outshines the film.
The story of Pakistani immigrant George Khan, his English wife Ella and their expansive brood of children (five boys and one girl, with a further unseen son whose absence hangs over the parents’ marriage throughout) in 1970s Salford, Tom Scutt’s stage design piles scenes and settings on top of one another just as claustrophobically as the Khans must be in their small terrace house. Sofas battle with chip shop chairs, and outhouses double as interiors. It’s a design which encourages speedy transition between scenes, giving momentum to a play which manages to pack much into its two hour running time.
And there is much to include: a comedy about family, about the practicalities of the children’s multi-ethnic heritage and their relationship with their father’s home country and faith, dovetails with the more dramatic elements, as George’s iron rule of his family results in his wife and children coming to dislike him, just as they love him and will defend him from attacks by others.
But George’s rôle as a fearsome monster is created more by his family’s talk about, and reaction to, him rather than in Simon Nagra’s blustering performance. The headstrong children in particular, and their differing reactions to George’s attempts to arrange marriages for two of his older sons, paint an evocative picture of their difficult relationship with their father. From devout Muslim Maneer (Darren Juppan) to Assad Zaman’s reckless art student Saleem and Adam Karim’s parka-wearing Sajit – the tragicomic heart of the family – there is a strong sense of a family unit that is recognisable to all, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
But it is Pauline McLynn who comes to dominate. Her Ella is a matriarch in the mould familiar to viewers of Coronation Street, dealing with problems with grit and good humour. Both she and her best friend, “Auntie” Annie (Sally Bankes) provide the lion’s share of the humour that ensures that, when George’s anger boils over into violent action, the audience feels every blow as acutely as Ella does.
Khan Din’s dialogue is razor sharp throughout, rewarding attentive listening – not always easy in the Waterside’s auditorium, which cares little for subtlety of vocal tone. But with care, it is possible to appreciate the writing that makes East is East one of British theatre’s modern classics.
Photo: Marc Brenner | Runs until 27th June