Originally a play, then a film and a sequel (apparently a third instalment’s in development too) this new revival of East Is East dishes up the dream pairing of its writer, Ayub Khan-Din (who you may remember from appearances in My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) with Jane Horrocks (who you’ll definitely remember as Bubble from Ab Fab and Little Voice from...er...Little Voice).
If you’ve somehow missed seeing the original film over the years (frankly inexcusable) the action’s set in a mixed race household in Salford in the early 70s and revolves around the marriage of George Khan (a Pakistan born Muslim), his wife Ella (a British born Roman Catholic) and their 7 kids.
It’s a set up that’s ripe for sitcom-esque comedic moments, ranging from the imminent circumcision of Sajit (ouch) through to the proposed arranged marriages of two of George’s sons to some, ahem, less than lovely looking brides. Act I goes for the laughs with George ranting and raving at his family and the world he finds himself in like some kind of Pakistani version of Alf Garnett. Act II has some much darker moments though and the physical violence meted out by George on his wife and sons still packs a punch, literally, even if you’ve seen the film or play before.
As you’d expect Khan-Din inhabits George’s skin perfectly, eventually portraying an almost King Lear-like level of confusion, hurt and anger that spills over into violence as his family adopts more Western ways of dress and behaviour. Horrocks is a predictably safe pair of hands as his wife Ella, standing by her man despite the abuse but more than standing her own ground when it comes to defending her family and way of life.
Kudos to Sally Bankes as Auntie Annie who nails the archetypal neighbourhood matriarch, coming across as a kind of 70s White Dee, whilst the rest of the cast do a fine job of winding George up in between portraying some of the inevitable conflict and confusion caused as two radically different worlds collide in the turbulent 70s.
Music plays a significant role in the production too, with quick bursts of Northern Soul, pop and...er...the It’s a Knockout theme tune representing the West and more traditional Asian music keeping the East flame alive, even if George’s family take the piss out of it at times, most memorably in the amusing chip shop scene. And the set’s well worth a mention with Designer Tim Scutt perfectly capturing the cramped decaying Victorian squalor that many families still lived in during the 60s and 70s. Of course many ended up in decaying and cramped tower blocks whilst the middle classes moved in and renovated some of these Victorian hovels but we’ll gloss over that for now.
One thing you can’t gloss over perhaps is that just a week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, for a thankfully small minority, the chasm between East and West seems to be stronger than ever. Other reviews of this current revival written by second or third generation British Asians have also pointed out that the arranged marriage scenes can cause some uncomfortable silences as audience members realise that this could still be their future. Then you’ve got the fear peddling nonsense spouted on Fox News as a so called ‘Terrorist Expert’ labelled Birmingham a no go area for non Muslims and you find yourself thinking that many of the themes explored in East Is East are sadly every bit as relevant as they were back in the 70s. On a brighter note looking round at tonight’s audience though – mixed enough to give an Equality and Diversity Officer a stiffie...albeit a non threatening mutually inclusive stiffie – it’s clear that as a society we’ve come a long way. And thank whichever God might happen to float your boat for that eh? Take that Fox ‘News’.
Having debuted at The REP way back in 1996 it’s great to see East Is East back in the City again and, if you ‘Khan’ grab a ticket, this production’s well worth catching.
East Is East is on at The New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 17th January - tickets here – before moving on to Richmond and Manchester.