One of the many pleasures of reviewing online theatre has been getting to see some productions of shows from the past which might have otherwise not remained in the collective memory. Some of these have been almost legendary groundbreakers (e.g. the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby) while others might more easily be described as hidden gems whose time has now come. It’s also possible to go back and experience whole bodies of work such as that of the Globe or comedy supremos Spymonkey. It is with this in mind that I approached East, a play I had not seen in either its original or, as here, 25th anniversary revival iterations. Named in one list as one of 100 of the “best and most influential plays” performed in Britain in the post war years, it seemed to be something which no self-respecting drama critic could afford to miss.
It’s interesting that the video’s title sequence showing the exterior of the Vaudeville Theatre in 1999 very much insists that the play is Steven Berkoff’s East for indeed it is a piece very much linked to that particular enfant terrible; he actually makes a brief appearance at the curtain call. I confess I don’t know that much about this particular writer/director/actor’s career other than he tends to turn up as the baddie in quite a few films and the term “in yer face theatre” was coined around his work. However, I am assured by those in the know that East is very much the proto-typical Berkoff play. And there I already have a bit of an issue. To me it wasn’t so much a play as a series of sketches and vignettes which played to the notion of a stereotypical East End of London scenario which might have been a pastiche or a homage – I really couldn’t tell.
There are five “types” on display. Dad (Jonathan Linsley) is a man who is stuck in the past. He remembers the East End as it was and, naturally, thinks it was better back then. Prone to making racist and sexist remarks he seems to be representing the lumpen proletariat. Mum is a depressed drudge who skivvies for the family even as she fantasises about sexual encounters. Why she is played by a man (Edward Bryant) I have no idea (unless it’s to pay homage to that working class art form pantomime) as it doesn’t really add anything to the mix. This leaves just the one key female character of Sylv (Tanya Franks) who, if it’s possible, is even more of a cliché than the men. She’s objectified and subject to male approval in ways that were beginning to seem beyond the pale back in the 70s never mind the late 90s or the early 20s. The remaining pair who sit at the heart of the piece are Les and Mike (Matthew Cullum and Christopher Middleton) two “lads” who turn to violence at the drop of a hat and embody a perceived working class sensibility which centres on family, alcohol, “having a laugh”, being loud and aggressive and insisting on respect. Like Berkoff I grew up in the East End of London (though admittedly at a later time) and it’s not really how I remember it.
Cullum and Middleton are probably the most successful at embodying the Berkoff ethos which is deliberately unsettling but at times it almost comes across as rather quaint in its attempts to disrupt cosy perceptions. There is a scene, for instance, in which the C bomb is dropped so many times that it ceases to have any power to shock. Conversely many of the apparently casual sexist and racist elements which might almost have gone unnoticed 45 years ago now just seem crass even if originally they were intended to say more about the speaker than the topic being addressed. It’s the same argument which was used over the character of fellow eastender Alf Garnett who has all but vanished from the collective consciousness.
All that aside, does it actually work as a piece of drama? Some of the mime work is exceptionally good conjuring up visits to the Kursaal amusement park in Southend (I remember it well) and a frantic ride on a Harley Davidson (I seem to have missed out on that one). And it certainly could never be accused of not having its own very individual style. While I can see why the show was considered innovative and important when originally performed, leading to a whole slew of physical theatre imitators in the intervening years, I can’t say time looks kindly on it now. It is just so unsubtle in its characterisation and even much of the writing seems rather turgid and forced. Going for a cod Shakespearean tone is amusing for about 20 minutes but after that it simply starts to pall – though it is fun spotting the references and half references to the Bard’s actual lines. And yes it’s funny at the start when Shakespearean language and rhythms are undercut by some “typical” Cockney banter (“Have a cigarette” becomes “I will donate to thee a snout”) but not for nearly two hours. What emerges is a deeply patronising view of a particular culture of which Berkoff was once a part and this is further reinforced by the inclusion of pub songs traditionally sung round a jangling piano (sorry – joanna!)
It still stands as an interesting experiment but just didn’t do much for me. I’ve always understood Berkoff to be rather a Marmite figure and his direction of his own play here certainly demonstrates why. Forceful, provocative, relevant, witty and engaging? Or weakly characterised, banal, heavy handed dull and quite offensive. I know which side of the fence I’m on.
East is available via Digital Theatre – click here
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