Somewhat unbelievably, to myself anyway, and with largely unpremeditated timing, I found myself on New Year’s Eve settling down to appraise my 1,000th online show since starting this daily reviewing project back in April 2020. It’s been a total of 640 days since then and the one “venue” I have visited significantly more than any other has been the National Theatre. Initially, this was through the 16 week bonanza of free online streams in 2020 (click here) and more latterly through their subscription platform making for a total of some 40 or so of their productions across the last 21 months. Clearly, there was really only one choice upon reaching such a significant anniversary.
East Is East is a recent addition to their catalogue and only appeared as a live production back in October – it was the first offering in the Lyttleton auditorium on their reopening. It’s a co-production with Birmingham Rep celebrating the 25th anniversary of the play by Ayub Khan Din which has often been cited as one of the most influential works in bringing South Asian culture to a British mainstream audience. Probably better known for the film version, it’s a powerful comedy drama demonstrating the tensions along the fracture line of where lifestyles collide.
The Khan family live in Salford although at least part of father George’s heart still resides in Pakistan despite his forty years in the UK. He cannot reconcile himself to a system where he isn’t in charge and is at odds with his children over their adoption of new cultural norms. He’s a petty tyrant who for much of the play is portrayed as ridiculous, ironically in much the same way as Alf Garnett used to be. However, he latterly reveals a tendency towards domestic violence taking out his anger on wife as he tries to adhere to ideas which he thinks will keep his culture alive. In the first half this revolves around getting youngest son Sajit circumcised and in the second forcing arranged marriages on two of the older boys, Abdul and Tariq. Meanwhile the oldest son has already left home in protest, another pair of the brothers have retreated into the comfort zones of religion and art and the only girl, Meenah, is clearly shaping up to be a rebel with a cause. Mum, Ella tries to keep the peace and hold the family together, but it isn’t getting any easier and she finally cracks, precipitating the violence which follows.
This ensemble piece is exceptionally well cast and full of energy from a predominantly young set of performers some of whom have graduated from the writer’s TV series Ackley Bridge. Amy-Leigh Hickman and Gurjeet Singh make a very good job of the rebels Meenah and Tariq and we particularly feel for the doom they can both see coming and strive so strenuously to avoid. Noah Manzoor is also delightful as the parka inhabiting Sajit whose roll call of tics has clearly been brought on watching his family at odds with each other – it’s no wonder that he hides in the coal shed. Tony Jayawrdena (another graduate from Ackley Bridge) is both the comic and tragic heart of the play. Although it’s a performance played for laughs initially, the darker undercurrents are also well brought out even if we are left feeling uncomfortable about the outcome. Sophie Stanton’s Ella is, for much of the time, the calm centre at the eye of the hurricane which is her family. Her revealing chats to neighbour Annie (Rachel Lumberg – mysteriously uncredited in the digital programme) bring another level of humour to the play although they teeter on the edge of Les Dawson territory. The second half of Act Two, as George meets with Mr Shah to sort out the arranged marriages, is a comic tour de force with plenty of visual surprises to complement the hilarious dialogue. My one disappointment was in the rather lacklustre ending which didn’t seem to go anywhere.
Other than that, the direction of Iqbal Khan ensures a lively and thoroughly enjoyable set of performances with the whole show zipping along at a speed which ensures that the time never drags. And there is excellent back up via the visual splendours of Bretta Gerecke’s set with TV screens helping to set the context and the use of hideous geometric patterns in the furnishings immediately placing us in a particular era. This spills over into Susan Kulkarni’s costumes which are also great fun.
This was an excellent way to finish 2021’s online viewing experience (592 shows across 365 days). If you’ve yet to investigate the NT At Home platform I can assure you that with its first class seating, on tap refreshments and the ability to rewatch favourite scenes it represents excellent value; it’s managed to keep me out of mischief, anyway!